Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Dialogue in one-character scenes

By Jenny Hilborne
Author of mysteries & thrillers

I've got a dilemma.

Unless a character is talking to himself, how does an author add (meaningful) dialogue to a one-person scene? What about a one-person chapter (or three)? Should we invite another person into the scene for the purpose of avoiding an all-narrative chapter, or is that a cheap way out? Can a chapter work with no dialogue? I'm still pondering the question...

In my new project, a paranormal thriller set in a gritty area of San Francisco, my main character spends quite a bit of time alone, especially in the first few chapters. Or, at least, that's the way I intended to write it. Several sets of circumstances have thrust him into this situation, and I noticed by the end of the second chapter I had no dialogue. I remember learning at various writers conferences and workshops I've attended that dialogue is important. Without it, the chapter becomes a descriptive passage, which some may find boring. I'm also mindful of the 'show and not tell' rule.

Personally, I love dialogue, it's just that it didn't/doesn't belong in these two chapters: didn't/doesn't - I'm still wavering on the point. Unsure if a lack of dialogue would be an issue for readers, I went back and added some, with my character talking to himself. We all do it, so why not my character? Well, the problem is he's just killed a man, so he needs to stay hidden and quiet; therefore, he would not talk to himself - at least, not aloud.

I considered using internal dialogue, but struggled to carry it through two whole chapters. It's only thought and not real spoken conversation or a real interaction with another character. Stunned by what he's done, my main character's only thought is of escape - getting far away from the scene of the crime. So, I took it out and brought in a second character - someone who may or may not be linked to the killing. Even though I'm only three chapters in, the addition of a new character has changed the entire direction of the story and presented new challenges. This may be a good thing - I'm not yet sure.

The first two chapters include plenty of action and suspense. Why did he do it? Will he be caught? Who did he kill and how will he get away? As I re-read these chapters, I'm back to the question of whether the dialogue fits, or if it is even needed. I'm undecided. I've looked for other unique ways to bring in dialogue, but it's difficult to do without bringing in unnecessary characters.

I added a little bit of backstory and tried to bring in snippets of old conversations there, but it felt forced and didn't work for my first two chapters. The paranormal element to the story is not yet relevant, so I can't use that. My MC does not have a volleyball or any other imaginary friend with whom he can share a conversation. During a hot-foot pursuit, I had my MC bump into a stranger on the street, mostly for the sake of adding dialogue. It worked for this scene, but I'm going to have to find more unique ways to add dialogue in later one-character scenes.

I never realized how tough it is to write chapters with only one character. It's quite a challenge.

Authors: how do you handle one-character scenes/chapters?

Readers: do you need dialogue in every chapter?


  1. Well, rules can sometimes be broken and chapters can go without dialogue if they are well written. You are a good writer, so I think you'd be up to the challenge. If you have doubts, perhaps letting some readers review it and listening to their comments would help.

    Now then, onto suggestions:
    If your character is hiding, can he overhear others' conversations?
    I'm assuming you are writing this third person. What if you tried writing it in first person?

    Those are my first thoughts. Good luck!

  2. That's a tough one, Jen, and something I've also struggled with. There have been plenty of times when I've realized I had a large chunk of pages where the character is alone, doing something, and which requires a bit of expository writing. What I usually do is try to break it up with internal dialogue (in italics/present tense) along with varying paragraph lengths: Short, longer, short, medium, etc. Sometimes there's just no way around it, but I do my best to keep it as brief as I can. Don't stress it too much. You can always cut and revise later, and you may find other ways to break up the scene as you develop the story. Meanwhile, just let the words flow and focus on getting your story down.

  3. This is one of those angst-y posts. But I have to totally agree with Gayle. She has some great suggestions, and the best is to have a couple of beta readers take a look. Odds are, you've pulled it off brilliantly and don't know it.

  4. Thanks for the comments. I have used some internal dialogue and also added an extra character. We'll see what the beta's think of it. Quite a tough one, as Drew states.

  5. There's always Proust's approach. Pages and pages and pages about falling asleep, interior monologue reminiscing about doing nothing. That's a single character in-his-head book, not just scene or chapter.

    As Andrew and Jen have pointed out, there's no MRD - minimum required dialogue, just as there's no MAE - maximum allowed exposition. A book can be written entirely in dialogue - even without the "he said/she said" tags - or entirely without dialogue.

    It's the story, adjective. If something's happening, if the plot's moving forward, the character is doing, then it doesn't matter how that gets conveyed to us. 19th century novels indulged in long exposition not just because they could but also because, in part, they were trying to be cameras. Picture after picture.

    How many movies move without dialogue? I'm not talking car-chase-filler-time (personally, I prefer Guiness Draught or Abita Amber) - but gestures and actions that convey emotion and conflict. You can do that with "description" or "exposition."

    Do you need interior monologue? That depends on the Point-of-View and how into the character's head the story demands you get. Consistent perspective. And all that. As Andrew said, though, those are revision assignments.

    (By the way, since it's paranormal, maybe some out-of-place-telepathy-to-be-explained-later might work as a dialogic interlude.

    Thanks for the post, and keep us informed.

  6. A whole chapter in the head of one character - and no dialogue? That's a tough one! I thought it couldn't be done till I read John le Carre's spy thriller The Mission Song. Its first chapter - 17 pages long - is entirely monologue in which the protagonist Bruno reflects languidly upon his life.

    le Carre's trick is to have Bruno address the reader, in a rhetorical way, so that the reader assumes the role of a second 'speaker', albeit a silent one, in a simulated dialogue.

    That said, perhaps only le Carre could pull it off!

  7. I'm re-reading 'Amsterdam' at the moment and this has stretches where we are just with one character. My instinct is that if that is how your story is panning out then that is how it's meant to be and unless beta readers tell you it's not working you may be doing yourself and the story a disservice by falsely introducing characters....

    One thought though - I've just had a quick check and one way Ian McEwan breaks it up briefly with dialogue is through a remembered conversation...might that work? I imagine that would be easy to weave into your scenario....


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