So far in Developing Themes In Your Stories, we’ve covered character arcs, the story premise, and external conflict, which are all important building blocks for stories. Dialogue, however, is more of an interior design element. It adds color and life to a story and aids in the overall delivery. It’s also an excellent method for consciously nurturing literary themes.
Like with previous installments of Developing Themes In Your Stories, this post will feature activities you can use during the writing process.
It’s All About the Deeper Meaning
If I had to pick, I’d say that dialogue is my favorite element of novel-writing. It reveals character, deepens conflict, and shares information. Most of all, it has the power to rivet readers to the page. However, did you know that dialogue is also a fantastic way of nurturing a story’s themes? Themes can be conveyed in dialogue with such subtlety that you have to closely study what’s being said.
Think about some of your favorite quotes from books you’ve read. Some of them might be observations or descriptions, but most will likely come from conversations, arguments, and other character interactions. And when you study dialogue carefully, you’ll find that not only are the words and emotions memorable, but the overall message carries equal weight.
The trick is to not make the theme too obvious. If it is, the dialogue may come across as preachy. Instead, let the theme at hand motivate your character to speak, just as it can motivate him to act or make tough choices. That will allow for natural-sounding dialogue with meaning and emotion that delivers your intended themes.
What Are Your Characters Really Talking About?
Purposeful dialogue consists of four elements that can be dissected with these questions:
- Topic: What is the subject of the dialogue, or of the chosen excerpt from a longer conversation?
- Details: What questions do the participating characters ask? What information is revealed?
- Opinions: What points do the participating characters make in favor of or against the topic? How do other characters receive those opinions?
- Themes: What high-level concepts emerge from the dialogue? In other words, what are the characters really talking about?
The first three elements (topic, details, opinions) are directly revealed through dialogue, so they’re easy to spot. Finding the theme, however, requires examining the conversation’s dynamics and piecing together the answers from the previous questions. This includes not only the words, but tone, emotion, and other clues from participating characters.
Let’s practice with an example from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. In Chapter 5, Mrs. Weasley (mother of Harry’s best friend) and Harry’s godfather Sirius disagree about how much information about Lord Voldemort’s whereabouts should be shared with Harry:
“Harry’s not a member of the Order of the Phoenix!” said Mrs. Weasley. “He’s only fifteen and – “
” – and he’s dealt with as much as most in the Order,” said Sirius, “and more than some – “
“No one’s denying what he’s done!” said Mrs. Weasley, her voice rising, her fists trembling on the arms of her chair. “But he’s still – “
“He’s not a child!” said Sirius impatiently.
“He’s not an adult either!” said Mrs. Weasley, the color rising in her cheeks. (88 – 89)
It’s clear that Sirius and Mrs. Weasley are talking about Harry’s involvement with the Order (topic). Mrs. Weasley points out Harry’s age and the fact that Harry’s not a true member of the Order (detail) as reasons why they shouldn’t reveal much information to him (opinion). Sirius, however, reminds her of Harry’s unique experiences as a young wizard (detail) and implies that he sees Harry as an equal (opinion).
Now, read the ending again. Both adults counter with their views about Harry’s maturity. Here, the dialogue is no longer just about Harry and the Order. It’s about adolescence (theme), that rocky period when children want to take charge of their lives and adults still want to protect them – and Mrs. Weasley and Sirius don’t share the same opinion about how to treat Harry at this stage in his life.
Choose a dialogue excerpt from your WIP. Read it, then answer the Dialogue Dissection questions above. Did you discern any theme(s)? If not, how could you revise the dialogue so it’s still realistic but lets the theme(s) be more present? Feel free to try this exercise on dialogue from published books you’ve read, too.
Emotions Can Add Subtext to a Theme
Emotions in dialogue can put a unique angle on a story’s themes. As your character is speaking, consider his opinions at that time. How do they clash with those of the other participating characters? How does he react as a result? These details can help reveal a character’s view on the topic while offering additional insight on the theme in an implicit manner.
One way of doing this is by showing a character’s emotions. Body language, tone of voice, and internal sensations can describe the intensity or subdued nature of a particular feeling. Mrs. Weasley’s trembling fists and flushed face in the previous excerpt are great examples. She’s so adamant about protecting Harry and defending her belief about his adolescence that she’s nearing a fit of rage. Given that Mrs. Weasley is a mother to a boy who’s Harry’s age, it’s no wonder that she feels this way.
Appropriate word choices can also convey emotion. Take this example from Chapter 23 of the same Harry Potter novel, during a scene where Harry receives a message from Professor Dumbledore to stay in hiding, just as Harry is considering an escape:
“‘Stay [where I am]?’ That’s all anyone could tell me after I got attacked by those dementors too! Just stay put while the grown-ups sort it out, Harry! We won’t bother telling you anything, though, because your tiny little brain might not be able to cope with it!” (495)
No physical or internal cues are needed here. The words alone are direct, forceful, and so realistic that you can almost hear Harry yelling. He makes it clear that he wants to be involved in and informed about the older characters’ plans. Yet the adults won’t let him because of his age, which frustrates Harry. This offers a striking reminder about adolescence: When teenagers are denied the privilege of being treated like adults, that denial can feel like a slap in the face.
Using the dialogue you chose for Activity #1, look for reaction cues from the participating characters. What emotions do those reactions reveal? Why would your characters feel that way? What can you infer about the angles on the theme in question based on those reactions? Also, study the words used in the dialogue. Do they reveal the speaker’s emotions? If not, how could you revise the dialogue to incorporate more emotion through reaction cues and/or word choice?
Repetition Is the Key to Learning – and to Themes
Notice how both excerpts from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix deal with the same theme. That’s no coincidence. Passage after passage of dialogue in this book touches on adolescence, each reflecting on different aspects of the theme. The same goes for the novel’s other themes like power, isolation, and friendship.
Repetition is crucial to delivering literary themes. In fact, it’s part of our working definition of “theme.” Presenting such concepts once won’t teach the protagonist – or the reader – much about them. They can only be ingrained if the writer revisits them throughout the story and forces the protagonist to struggle with them as part of the overall character arc. After all, we learn and succeed through repetition, don’t we?
Repeat Activities #1 and #2 with other dialogue excerpts from your WIP. Do the same themes keep emerging? Do any themes appear only once? If so, how could you revise the example so it’s more on-point with other, more consistent themes?
Finally, remember how we said Developing Themes In Your Stories was a four-part series? Well, we’re not done yet! There are still more ways to nurture themes in your writing, so we’ll pick up the series later this year with four more articles. Until then, stay tuned for new theme case studies in the coming weeks!
What are some topics you’d like to see featured at Theme: A Story’s Soul? Share your thoughts by commenting below or tweeting me at @SaraL_Writer with the hashtag #AStorysSoul.