Building a Plot through Dialogue

Plotting the first draft of a novel can be difficult. Oftentimes, you’re not sure exactly where the story is going until you get there. Weaving together multiple characters, their micro-conflicts, and the larger plot is impossible unless you already know how the tapestry should look.

I’ve been having trouble recently with writing my first draft for The Warden of Everfeld: Legacy. Some of that has been due to travel and other things going on in life, but a big part of it has been a bit of writer’s block. Luckily, I found a way around that, at least for now.

We traveled to Penn State over the weekend for my wife’s cousin’s graduation. It was great to see family and look back on our glory days of college, but it also gave the chance to write outside of my normal environment. On Saturday afternoon, as my wife and son napped, I sat on the quiet patio of our hotel and wrote in my journal.

Using Dialogue to Build the Plot

Instead of trying to continue the current chapter I had been working on (and still need to finish), I decided to get some notes down for an upcoming section.

I hadn’t really outlined how this section would begin or where it would end, but I knew that it would entail a crucial dialogue between two or three characters — something to really build the tension!

So without worrying about the setting or the set-up, I wrote a quick scene of dialogue. It was probably only 200 words in total, but it helped me get ideas onto paper. It also led my characters into a budding conflict. I knew in the back of my mind that this particular conflict was coming, but I didn’t know how or when. Now, I have the bones of a scene that introduces this conflict, and will ultimately push the plot forward by making my characters react to it.

I’ll probably let the scene rest in my journal for a while until I actually get to that point in my draft. Then, I can take the time building the setting that will frame the dialogue, already knowing how the scene should proceed.

3 Ways Dialogue Can Help with Plotting

It turns out, starting with the dialogue has helped me contextualize what this scene — and the rest of my plot — will ultimately look like. Here are a few lessons I took from this little exercise.

I know which characters are involved

I started writing this scene with only two characters participating, but I quickly realized that I could ratchet up the tension by having a third character present. Now, instead of a simple back-and-forth, I have a real argument, where two characters confront each other, a third steps in to intervene, and then it turns into a two-on-one where the one character gives the other two an ultimatum.

I’ve set up the conflict for future scenes

As I described above, this dialogue ends with one character giving two others an ultimatum. How will they react? Will the first character follow through on the ultimatum? Will other conflicts arise from this?

This gives me some kindling to really light up future sections with tension.

I can build the setting around them

As a proud world-builder and expository writer, I typically begin new sections with some set-up: where they occur, who is there, and the atmosphere.

I’ll certainly go back and add this stuff later, but writing this dialogue without all of the exposition allowed me to focus on the characters, their mannerisms, their speech, and the tension between them, without worrying about what’s going on around them.

I have the meat of the scene written. Now I just need to add the dressing.

Keep Moving Forward

Now, I know that I can use this mechanism in the future if I get stuck on how to set up a particular scene. Just let the characters speak, and worry about the rest later!

Steve D

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