One of the most important factors in fiction writing is tension, which is the sense of urgency the author creates. Tension grabs the reader by the throat and refuses to let go, sucking him or her into the story. Although tension in fiction writing should ebb and flow – you have to give your reader a break – you must learn how to convey tension through dialogue.
Many novice writers use dialogue as nothing more than a reprieve from narration. Their characters talk to one another with no obvious purpose and nothing is accomplished through the dialogue. An effective writer, however, uses dialogue to establish something between characters, often to create the tension necessary to build suspense.
In order to convey tension through dialogue, you must know your characters just as well as you know your best friend. What do they want? What are they trying to accomplish? Dialogue should demonstrate the depth of their desire as well as the speed with which they must accomplish their goals. Dialogue is the vehicle that many writers use to convey a want or desire.
Tension can be more easily conveyed through dialogue than through narration because you can not only use the words that your characters say to convey tension, but also the way in which they say it. Using dialogue tags are only one option writers have at their disposal; when you tell the reader how a character looks, behaves and sounds when he or she speaks, you automatically convey tension.
For example, take a look at this quote from Stephen King’s Cell:
“Things have changed. They can’t keep us out.” He pushed Clay’s hand off his own, but instead of hammering, he put his forehead against the glass and shouted. Clay thought he had a pretty good shouting voice on him for a little guy. “Hey! Hey in there!”
In this one small paragraph from a much larger scene, you can sense the tension between Clay and his counterpart. You can tell not only from the dialogue, but from the words around it, that the characters are in a state of panic, which leaves the reader wondering what is going to happen next.
You can also see in the quote from Cell that Stephen King used italics to convey even more tension through dialogue. You already know that the character is shouting because he says so in the preceding sentence, but King conveys even more tension through dialogue by italicizing the final three words.
Another way in which you can convey tension through dialogue is to write a rapid succession of words exchanged between two characters. You see this quite often in books by Dean Koontz and Richard North Patterson; the authors establish the two speakers and then forgo dialogue tags to speed up the exchange.
Tension is an important part of any fictional writing – whether romance or suspense or mystery – so next time you sit down to write a work of fiction, concentrate on the formation of dialogue. Write only dialogue that serves to move the story forward and to add to the tension of the piece.