Thursday, May 26, 2011

In The Throes of Thursday--What I've Learned About Writing Novels_4

As if the world isn't already TENSE enough what with
just surviving another Rapture, today I'm going to 
focus on creating tension with dialogue. 
And I'm going to use a couple of plays as examples 
since they are great sources. Without tense dialogue 
the audience falls into a stupor.

In a Stupor
Here's a little bit from Edward Albee's  
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf--there are four characters 
in the room during this exchange--a young couple, 
Nick and his wife as well as George and Martha, 
the seasoned combatants.See if you feel just a touch of tension.

NICK (Peers at Martha)
Your eyes are ... brown, aren't they?

Green! (A little too fast) Well, in some lights they 
look brown but they're green. Not like his . . . more 
hazel. George has watery blue eyes. . . milky blue.

Make up your mind, Martha.

I was giving you the benefit of the doubt.  
(Now back to the others) Daddy has green eyes, too.

He does not! Your father has tiny red a 
white mouse. In fact, he is a white mouse.

You wouldn't dare say a thing like that if he was here! 
You're a coward!

Can you picture the other two people in the room with 
George and Martha? In the audience, I was cringing. 
What sharp spear of a word would they hurl at each 
other next?

Now, here's a small of bit of classic dialogue tension. 
The audience knows what Iago is up to and watches as 
he starts to weave his web of suspicion to trap Othello

My Noble lord,--

What dost thou say, Iago?

Did Michael Cassio, when you woo'd my lady, 
Know of your love?

He did, from first to last: why dost thou ask?

But for a satisfaction of my thought;
No further harm.

Why of thy thought,Iago?

I did not think he had been acquainted with her.

O,yes; and went between us very oft.


Indeed! ay, indeed" discern'st thou aught in that?
Is he not honest?

Honest, my lord!

Notice that in these very different examples there are some 

The language is lean. No fat, but lots of sub-text in 
each one. Martha choose the very unflattering 
adjectives, milky and watery, to describe George's eye color. 

Iago chooses the single word, indeed, which 
I guess you could translate as, "foolish dupe." He then repeats 
Othello's word, honest, implying, "whatever!" 

The words themselves seem pretty innocent, but their 
meaning isn't and that's what the reader picks up. 
That's what creates the tension. 

Here are a couple of earlier post about dialogue if 
you'd like to see them. 

Back to Basics i

Back to Basics ii

As always I really love your comments. If you have a 
great example or want to add to what I've shared, 
please do. I learn so much from my readers.


  1. Word choice to create tension--I love it! It's very true. Which words characters choose reflect who they are and create tension at the same time. Great post!

  2. Nice.
    This is perfect for me today.
    I think I'll look for a couple of subtext words for my WIP.
    Thanks :)

  3. I think u r right about lean dialog being the key. Sharp, pointy sentences work best for spearing ones verbal opponent. :)

  4. You are so right. Sharp, pointy sentences are best for spearing ones verbal opponents. :)

  5. Let's face it, arguments are fun to write.

  6. A great conversation between characters can tell you so much about their personalities.

    Super post.

  7. Helpful examples!

    I like that "honest" means "whatever"! Older books take longer to read because it takes more time to pick up these language meanings.

    I try to be lean in my dialogue - not too many thoughts and actions to muddle it. Takes a skilled hand to put all the meaning into the dialogue. I'm trying!

  8. As I wrote today I kept thinking about what I'd said. Actually, it helped. I cut a lot stuff I didn't need to make my tension. Need to pay more attention to what I post. :-)

  9. Hello, I am Dale Hill's granddaughter. She sent me the link to your blog and it's been really interesting to read through. I read your book, Sliding on the Edge, a couple of years ago and enjoyed it very much. Having grown up loving horses, I was initially drawn to the story because of the connection between Shawna and Magic. As I kept reading, I was intrigued by the original manner in which you presented a teen struggle that has been portrayed in many books before.

    This specific post on your blog caught my eye because of the reference to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. I am currently reading that play in my AP English Literature class, alongside Yates' Revolutionary Road. Much of my class is based on the comparison between pairs of texts, so I enjoyed your pairing of Albee's play with Othello. I haven't yet read Othello, but was nonetheless interested in the dialogues you chose. I had a great time reading your novel, and it was really nice to see your blog a couple of years later. Good luck with your future writing.

  10. Hi Naomi,

    Thank you so much for your comment. What a wonderful coincidence that I'd post a comparative text piece at the same time you're taking a class that focuses on that very thing.

    Appreciate that you read Sliding on the Edge and liked the way it handled the teen issues.

    Good luck in your class and stop by any time.


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