Mapping Dialogue

Dialogue is a cornerstone of fiction. It’s also one of the hardest things to write well. Dialogue isn’t like real life conversation. Let’s face it—real conversation is often not that interesting to someone not directly involved, and doesn’t always serve a purpose. Dialogue in fiction can’t afford to be dull and meandering. It has to be pulling its weight.

Mapping dialogue is a way to plan, analyze, or fix dialogue by looking at what it contributes to the story. It’s all about deciding what the dialogue should accomplish, and then figuring out how it can accomplish it. It won’t turn dull dialogue into snappy conversation—but it will ensure that the dialogue is at least moving the story forward.

Dialogue mapping can be used when outlining or planning, to make sure the dialogue achieves a narrative goal. It can also be used in revision to tighten up dialogue that isn’t getting the job done.

Finding Purpose

Dialogue, like anything included in a story, should have a purpose. If it has no purpose, it can be safely left out, the way you’d leave out a character’s irrelevant breakfast, or that bathroom break they took between scenes.

To understand the purpose of a given conversation, you need to look at the state of the story before and after. What does the conversation change? In what way does it move the story forward? You can think of this in terms of how the dialogue contributes to the MICE quotient thread that contains it. The conversation itself may also be a small thread of its own. Either way, it needs to contribute to the bigger picture in some way, or the story is just treading water.

Since a conversation consists of two or more characters, this before-and-after effect can be broken down for each person. Each character has their own goals, and each character may change, or change their goals as a result of the conversation.

  1. What is the state of each character at the start of the conversation?
  2. What does each character want at the start of the conversation (in the story, and in this particular interaction)?
  3. What is the state of each character after the conversation?
  4. How has each character’s goals changed after the conversation?

These individual character differences add up to form the total change in the story from a given piece of dialogue.

Dialogue is Conflict

Dialogue has two main story purposes: information sharing, and conflict. However, information sharing isn’t terribly interesting without some sort of associated conflict. It can become interesting if the information is incomplete, incorrect, or not given freely.

As an example, consider a detective trying to solve a murder. If they ask the witness, and the witness explains exactly who the killer was, how they did it, and why, then the story isn’t interesting. However, if the witness only saw a fraction of what happened, the detective has to make inferences and combine information from other sources to solve the crime. If the witness doesn’t want to help, the detective needs to find a way to change their mind or trick them. If they lie, the detective needs to discover the lie. These “twists” on basic information sharing are all forms of conflict between the characters.

This conflict is caused by interactions between the characters’ goals:

  • Characters with similar or identical goals may try to work together toward a common cause. In this case, the conflict is something external that they team up to fight.
  • Characters with opposing goals will try to succeed at the expense of each other. One or the other may end up “winning” the conversation, or it may end in more of a tie, with the tension remaining or ramping up. They may get something useful from the conversation, or it may just increase their animosity for one another.
  • Characters with different, but not opposing goals may make a trade where both try to gain something from the conversation.

Action in Dialogue

Sometimes characters just talk, and sometimes they act without speaking, but often the two go hand-in-hand. When mapping out dialogue, it’s important to consider the actions that the characters will be taking while they talk. Are they just sitting in a room, or are they in the middle of a heist, trading quips between the safe-cracking and zipping down elevator cables?

Scenes can really start to pop when the characters’ actions in a scene drive one thread of the plot, while the characters’ dialogue in that same scene drives a different thread. The two characters may be stealing the diamond so they can pay off their debts to the deadly villain, but they can also be flirting in a way that ramps up the sexual tension, or trying to work out which of their fellow criminals ratted them both out.

Of course, sometimes the action and the dialogue go hand-in-hand, both advancing the same story thread. But beware scenes where only the action or dialogue is doing work. Meaningless dialogue during important action, or vice-versa, is a missed opportunity.

Charting a Course

Here’s a simple example with some of our heist dialogue in a table with a column for each character, and actions (in parentheses).

NatashaFrank
(slides down elevator shaft first)(slides down elevator shaft second)
Comments about the view from below. 
 Asks about Boris’s suspicious behavior recently. Is he the traitor?
She trusts Boris—he saved her in Amsterdam. 
(Works on the vault lock until it opens)(keeps watch)
Asks about Rocky—he knew things about her dad that he shouldn’t. 
 Agrees that Rocky is suspicious. He seemed to be snooping when they were planning the job.

The important thing is to list out the segments in order. Dialogue is give and take. In a typical conversation, each segment will lead logically into the next. When mapping dialogue, it typically looks like a series of actions and reactions.

Sometimes the characters will exhaust a topic and move on to something else, but even that requires planning. If one of the characters has more to say, they may not want to shift topics. If there is a break, one of the characters will usually start a new topic that pertains to their goals at that point in the conversation.

Mapping in Revision

Dialogue maps can be useful for editing, by providing a tool to analyze dialogue that’s already written. If a piece of dialogue doesn’t feel right, a dialogue map can reveal structural problems. Does the conversation flow naturally from the characters’ starting points and goals? Is there conflict? Does the flow of the segments back and forth make sense? Do the characters leave the conversation with new goals or knowledge? What changed?

Because dialogue maps are a structural tool, they won’t help with voice. A piece of dialogue can be perfectly functional in pushing the story forward, but still come across as stilted and artificial. Dialogue maps describe the content of the conversation, but not the exact wording.

The other important function of dialogue maps in revision is in making sure that changes to dialogue don’t break the structure. I often find that I want to change something that a character says in the middle of a conversation. Maybe I come up with a single line that I really want to include. Because of the nature of dialogue as back-and-forth, one change can result in another character’s response no longer making sense. Sometimes a change to one segment requires that the next segment change, and the next segment, and so on.

With a dialogue map in hand, it’s much easier to embark on this kind of reworking with an understanding of what that conversation has to accomplish. Even completely replacing the entire conversation is possible, so long as it starts and ends with the same character states and goals, and the appropriate action still happens.

To Map or Not to Map?

Depending on how you write, you may want to do some dialogue mapping before writing, as a guide through the conversation. It can be especially useful when more than two characters are involved or there’s a lot going on in a given scene.

If you’re less inclined to plan, you can always write first and ask questions later. Mapping dialogue after the fact is a great troubleshooting tool for a scene that feels “off,” or even as a way to decide exactly what a meandering conversation should be about.

Mapping every single conversation may be overkill. It can be a lot of work. But it’s a useful tool in the writer’s toolbox for addressing one of the biggest challenges of writing great stories.

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