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?