Dialogue and Tension | Bringing Scenes To Life

by Marylee MacDonald in For Writers Doing Revisions

Dialogue and tension go hand-in-hand. If the dialogue sounds fake or flat, you will not grab readers and compel them to read your book. In this post I’m going to give you four ways to revise dialogue and increase tension. I want to shine a spotlight on dramatic scenes. Scenes are where the reader forms a bond with the characters. You are the spider, and you must weave your web with words.

dialogue, tension, garden spider, araneus diadematus, spider

Image from Pixabay via the3cats

Dialogue And Scene

Let’s quickly review the difference between scene and summary. Here’s an example of a summary passage:

Driving with the window down, Jim Bob traveled from Abilene to Coeur d’Alene, and when he arrived, his cousins had already thrown a pile of moth-eaten Army blankets on the bunkhouse bed.

Jim Bob’s whole trip is condensed into two sentences. We can imagine what might have happened during his drive, but we’re not with him moment by moment.  (If “scene” and “summary” are new to you, then please read my blog post on “Scene and Summary: What’s the Difference?”)

Scenes are where you slow the clock. The characters operate in simulated “real time.” This gives the author space to put the characters thoughts, feelings, and “words spoken or unspoken” onto the page.

Readers can witness what’s happening and make up their own minds about motivation and character. That’s why writers so often strive to follow the old saw, “Show don’t tell.” When you’re “showing,” you’re in scene. When you’re “telling,” you’re often in summary.

All of this is well and good, but when you write your rough draft, you’re not consciously thinking about what should go into scene and what you should shrink-wrap and put in summary.

Revise Dialogue to Add Tension

When I’m writing, I have a picture in my head, and I let the words spill out. When I begin revising, I trim and shape.

Here’s how I do it.

I start by looking at each scene as a standalone. I skip the “connective tissue,” which is to say the passages of summary that link one scene to the next. That’s because scenes propel the story forward. And, scenes rely on dialogue between two or more characters, each with an agenda.

Sometimes the agenda is obvious. Other times, the characters try to hide their agendas. The agendas must clash, but that doesn’t mean “War of the Titans.”

Dialogue Is One Character Doing Something To The Other

Dialogue is arm-wrestling, not a bar fight. The combatants aren’t necessarily screaming at one another, but they do have physical gestures. Elbows on the table. Lips pulled back. They’re forced to face one another until the match ends. Then they can go their separate ways.

arm wrestling, competition, women, dialogue analogy

Dialogue is like arm-wrestling. The combatants aren’t punching one another, but they’re definitely using all their strength to slam their opponent’s hand down on the table.

When I am working on revisions, I look at each stretch of dialogue and ask five questions:

  • Is the protagonist carrying in baggage from the previous scene? (What’s the mindset or burden?)
  • What does the main character want at the beginning of the scene?
  • What does the main character stand to gain or lose?
  • Does the dialogue reveal internal obstacles that stand in the main character’s way? (self-doubt, misjudgments, self-defeating behavior)
  • Does the dialogue reveal external forces that could prevent the main character from reaching his or her goal? (passive-aggressive behavior on the part of the bad guy; physical constraints, such as in arm-wrestling; verbal opposition from another character; a ticking clock)

I read the dialogue over and over, looking to discover more about my characters. Sometimes, I trim a dozen lines to four. Other times I expand the dialogue and let it run the equivalent of two or three pages. My goal is to reveal the characters’ emotions through what they say or don’t say. I also pay close attention to their style of fighting.

Passive Aggressive Conflict

If you can show one character wanting to bring up a topic and the other refusing to discuss it, your scene will gain tension. Psychologists call this argumentative strategy “passive aggressive behavior.” Passivity is a weapon, and those who fight with it often have the upper hand. The passive fighter clings to control, while the non-passive partner because frustrated and hysterical.

Ernest Hemingway 1923 Passport Photograph, 1923

In “Hills Like White Elephants,” Hemingway reveals the characters’ agendas through dialogue. Readers learn that “something is at stake,” even though, on the surface, what the man and girl are talking about appears inconsequential.

In a story I’m sure you’ve all read, “Hills Like White Elephants,” Hemingway has a man and girl waiting in Ebro for a train. This couple is having an argument about something intensely personal. The fact that they’re in a public place and can’t shout at one another increases the tension.

The passage goes like this:

The woman [waitress] brought two glasses of beer and two felt pads. She put the felt pads and the beer glasses on the table and looked at the man and the girl. The girl was looking off at the line of hills. They were white in the sun and the country was brown and dry.
“They look like white elephants,” she said.
“I’ve never seen one,” the man drank his beer.
“No, you wouldn’t have.”
“I might have,” the man said. “Just because you say I wouldn’t have doesn’t prove anything.”

After these four sentences, the reader has made an emotional investment in the story. We want to watch the scene unfold.

Notice that Hemingway hasn’t told us what’s going on. Instead, it’s up to the reader to read between the lines. In fiction workshops this is called the “subtext.” The subtext is what’s not being said.

Calling Off The Argument

In real life it’s rare for an argument to begin and end in one sitting. Often the combatants go to their separate corners. If we’re looking for ways to inject more tension into dialogue, then calling off the argument works in the author’s favor.

Why? Because the reader knows that the argument has still not been resolved.

Again, think of the arm-wrestling metaphor. One takes a break to flex her fingers. The other goes to the bodega for a Coke. Then they resume.

In the Hemingway passage, the man called off the argument. Now, the girl renews her goading. The man says to the waitress:

“We want two Anis del Toro.”
“With water?”
“Yes, with water.”
“It tastes like licorice,” the girl said and put the glass down.
“That’s the way with everything.”
“Yes,” the girl said. “Everything tastes of licorice. Especially all the things you’ve waited so long for, like absinthe.”
“Oh, cut it out.”

“Hills Like White Elephants” has become an American classic because of how much the characters hold back. The author hasn’t given us access to their thoughts, so we don’t yet know what this fight is all about. All we know is that whatever it is really matters to both of them.

The dialogue goes on and on, much like a David Mamet play, and finally we arrive at these lines:

“And we could have all this,” she said. “And we could have everything and every day we make it more impossible.”
“What did you say?”
“I said we could have everything.”
“We can have everything.”
“No, we can’t.”
“We can have the whole world.”
“No, we can’t.”
“We can go everywhere.”
“No, we can’t. It isn’t ours any more.”
“It’s ours.”
“No, it isn’t. And once they take it away, you never get it back.”

Hemingway’s genius is that he brings the characters’ hidden agendas into the open, but he makes the issue as obscure as possible. Not even at the end does he spell out what’s at stake. The argument concludes with the girl saying this line:

“Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?”

The train is going to come and the argument is over. Life, literally, moves on.

Spoiler alert. If Hemingway had felt obliged to orient the reader to the characters’ hidden agendas, he might have written two sentences like this:

A man and girl found themselves stranded at Ebro, waiting for a train. She was pregnant and he did not want a baby.

Maybe he wrote sentences like that and took them out; but, do you see how telling too much would have undercut the tension?

When you are revising your scene, look for ways to bury what they’re actually fighting about. Many writers consciously do that, Alice Munro for one.

Fighting About The Small Thing, Rather Than The Big Thing

People have a hard time getting down to the real issues behind any conflict. Often, if a story is about a relationship, the big issue “at stake” is power. Who makes the decisions, financial and otherwise? Who determines how often a couple has sex?

One of the stories in my short story collection, Bonds of Love & Blood, is “Oregano.” On the surface they’re arguing about why he killed her potted herb; but the real thing they’re fighting about goes deeper.

She wants to call the shots, and if the marriage is to survive, she’ll have to let go of control. One small plant stands for many issues that confront the newly married couple, and these are the ones I spoke of before: Who controls the money and who controls the frequency of sex.

I did a YouTube reading for Superstition Review, and if you have time, you can read it online or listen to me read it to you.

What Does The Main Character Carry From the Scene?

Let me go back to the arm-wrestling analogy. When I began this post, I asked you to consider what kind of baggage the character was carrying into the scene. Let’s suppose our imaginary arm-wrestler has some weights in a gym bag, and in each scene, he adds one more five-pound, stackable, free-weight to the load.

barbell plates in gym

Each scene adds weight to your protagonist’s emotional baggage. The character lugs this weight through the novel, and eventually the burden becomes so great that she or he must find a way to lighten the load. Each scene’s dialogue must add weight. If it doesn’t, it’s not doing its job.

What is the five-pound free-weight that this scene you’re looking at adds to the gym bag? How does this weight fit with the weight from the scene before and the weight from the scene that will come next?

Each scene needs to make your character’s situation worse. In scene after scene, feel free to pile it on. At the climax of the story or the book, the pressure on the character is what forces her or him to change.

Notice that, in none of the above, did I say anything about adding a car chase or a shootout. While those external sources of tension are great, nothing is better than the pressure we put on ourselves or the burdensome expectations of our loved ones.

Psychological weight is what forces the character to give up his or her old way of doing things and try a new coping strategy. Look to your dialogue for the heavy lifting.

As always, I’m trying to share the discoveries I’ve made over the years. My fervent hope is to make your journey of becoming a writer just a tad easier, and I also hope that those of you who are avid readers might take a moment to look at a scene from your favorite author. Look at the dialogue and see if the writer is doing any of the things I’m suggesting here.


  • Marylee MacDonald

    Marylee MacDonald is the author of MONTPELIER TOMORROW, BONDS OF LOVE & BLOOD, BODY LANGUAGE, and THE BIG BOOK OF SMALL PRESSES AND INDEPENDENT PUBLISHERS. Her books and stories have won the Barry Hannah Prize, the Jeanne M. Leiby Memorial Chapbook Award, a Readers' Favorites Gold Medal for Drama, the American Literary Review Fiction Prize, a Wishing Shelf Book Award, and many others. She holds an M.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State, and when not reading or writing books, she loves to walk on the beach and explore National Parks.

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4 Responses to “Dialogue and Tension | Bringing Scenes To Life”

  1. Frank says:

    Same as Michael’s comments – reading this article gives me hope!

  2. Michael Tarulli says:

    Hi Marylee,

    Thank you for this advice. I think I am on track with my WIP.
    What you have described are hidden agendas, secrets, in dialogue and scenes.
    I’ll keep at it.

    Michael Tarulli

    • That’s so good to hear, Michael. Onward till the end. The real fun begins in revision. By then you’ll have the whole arc of the story in mind, and you can begin to plant seeds that will later prove critical in the harvest.