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How-to Tuesday

Story through Dialogue, Part 1: The Function of Dialogue

When including dialogue in any story, a writer must consider what it will do within a scene, as well as how it will contribute to the story as a whole.

There are four main functions of dialogue:

Exposition—Provides Information

In Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain, when Tom, Huck, and Joe see the ferry boat from Jackson’s Island, we get more information from their spoken memories and observations.

“I know now!” exclaimed Tom; “somebody’s drownded!”

“That’s it!” said Huck; “they done that last summer, when Bill Turner got drownded; they shoot a cannon over the water, and that makes him come up to the top. Yes, and they take loaves of bread and put quicksilver in ’em and set ’em afloat, and wherever there’s anybody that’s drownded, they’ll float right there and stop.”

“Yes, I’ve heard about that,” said Joe. “I wonder what makes the bread do that.”

“Oh, it ain’t the bread, so much,” said Tom; “I reckon it’s mostly what they say over it before they start it out.”

“But they don’t say anything over it,” said Huck. “I’ve seen ’em and they don’t.”

“Well, that’s funny,” said Tom. “But maybe they say it to themselves. Of course they do. Anybody might know that.”

The other boys agreed that there was reason in what Tom said, because an ignorant lump of bread, uninstructed by an incantation, could not be expected to act very intelligently when set upon an errand of such gravity.

“By jings, I wish I was over there, now,” said Joe.

“I do too” said Huck “I’d give heaps to know who it is.”

The boys still listened and watched. Presently a revealing thought flashed through Tom’s mind, and he exclaimed:

“Boys, I know who’s drownded—it’s us!”

Characterization—Reveals Something about the Character

We learn more about Tom’s character through dialogue when he encounters his friend, Ben, while whitewashing the fence.

“Say—I’m going in a-swimming, I am. Don’t you wish you could? But of course you’d druther work—wouldn’t you? Course you would!”

Tom contemplated the boy a bit, and said:

“What do you call work?”

“Why, ain’t that work?”

Tom resumed his whitewashing, and answered carelessly:

“Well, maybe it is, and maybe it ain’t. All I know, is, it suits Tom Sawyer.”

“Oh come, now, you don’t mean to let on that you like it?”

The brush continued to move.

“Like it? Well, I don’t see why I oughtn’t to like it. Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?”

That put the thing in a new light. Ben stopped nibbling his apple. Tom swept his brush daintily back and forth—stepped back to note the effect—added a touch here and there—criticised the effect again—Ben watching every move and getting more and more interested, more and more absorbed. Presently he said:

“Say, Tom, let me whitewash a little.”

Tom considered, was about to consent; but he altered his mind:

“No—no—I reckon it wouldn’t hardly do, Ben. You see, Aunt Polly’s awful particular about this fence—right here on the street, you know—but if it was the back fence I wouldn’t mind and she wouldn’t. Yes, she’s awful particular about this fence; it’s got to be done very careful; I reckon there ain’t one boy in a thousand, maybe two thousand, that can do it the way it’s got to be done.”

“No—is that so? Oh come, now—lemme just try. Only just a little—I’d let you, if you was me, Tom.”

“Ben, I’d like to, honest injun; but Aunt Polly—well, Jim wanted to do it, but she wouldn’t let him; Sid wanted to do it, and she wouldn’t let Sid. Now don’t you see how I’m fixed? If you was to tackle this fence and anything was to happen to it—”

“Oh, shucks, I’ll be just as careful. Now lemme try. Say—I’ll give you the core of my apple.”

“Well, here—No, Ben, now don’t. I’m afeard—”

“I’ll give you all of it!”

Movement—Propels Story Forward

When Muff Potter wakes up after Injun Joe killed Dr. Robinson, the story is moved in an unexpected direction through dialogue.

“Lord, how is this, Joe?” he said.

“It’s a dirty business,” said Joe, without moving.

“What did you do it for?”

“I! I never done it!”

“Look here! That kind of talk won’t wash.”

Potter trembled and grew white.

“I thought I’d got sober. I’d no business to drink to-night. But it’s in my head yet—worse’n when we started here. I’m all in a muddle; can’t recollect anything of it, hardly. Tell me, Joe—honest, now, old feller—did I do it? Joe, I never meant to—’pon my soul and honor, I never meant to, Joe. Tell me how it was, Joe. Oh, it’s awful—and him so young and promising.”

“Why, you two was scuffling, and he fetched you one with the headboard and you fell flat; and then up you come, all reeling and staggering like, and snatched the knife and jammed it into him, just as he fetched you another awful clip—and here you’ve laid, as dead as a wedge til now.”

“Oh, I didn’t know what I was a-doing. I wish I may die this minute if I did. It was all on account of the whiskey and the excitement, I reckon. I never used a weepon in my life before, Joe. I’ve fought, but never with weepons. They’ll all say that. Joe, don’t tell! Say you won’t tell, Joe—that’s a good feller. I always liked you, Joe, and stood up for you, too. Don’t you remember? You won’t tell, will you, Joe?” And the poor creature dropped on his knees before the stolid murderer, and clasped his appealing hands.

“No, you’ve always been fair and square with me, Muff Potter, and I won’t go back on you. There, now, that’s as fair as a man can say.”

“Oh, Joe, you’re an angel. I’ll bless you for this the longest day I live.” And Potter began to cry.

“Come, now, that’s enough of that. This ain’t any time for blubbering. You be off yonder way and I’ll go this. Move, now, and don’t leave any tracks behind you.”

Tension—Creates or Reveals Conflict

The first lines Tom Sawyer present a tense dialogue, with only one participant speaking.

“TOM!”

No answer.

“TOM!”

No answer.

“What’s gone with that boy, I wonder? You TOM!”

No answer.

Activity: Finding the Function of a Dialogue

During this next week, decide what the function of the dialogue you are reading and writing. Is it one of these four major functions? Does is serve another purpose? Does it serve a combination of purposes?

Next, Part 2: Exposition

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