There is a noted difference between using dialogue to develop or progress character through story and using it to show and distinguish character to the reader. One is great to use for making every character sound unique and the other is great to use throughout the story to help the reader understand how and when the character changes.
Using dialogue to develop the character through the story means having them converse or engage with the people and things around them one way at the beginning and showing the change in them throughout the story by having them interact with the world and characters in different ways.
There are many advantages to using dialogue to show character growth. A few of them are:
- Leaves more space outside of dialogue for story action, description, and all that fun jazz
- Demonstrates and shows the character’s progress through story
- Enhances and deepens character relationships
- Allows you to show the change of characters who aren’t POV characters
- Allows you to show character change when the narrator is unreliable or the perspective is a closed one — readers are withheld from knowing internal workings of characters
- It shows change without directly stating it — it shows and not tells
Today’s example is going to be from Cobra Kai the Netflix sequel to Karate Kid. The show follows original bad guy, Johnny Lawrence, as he resurrects Cobra Kai and fights with his past, present, and future.
I tend to use movies as examples a lot because screenwriting and novel or story writing both use the same storytelling techniques.
At the beginning of the series, we are presented with a drunk and washed up Johnny who is at rock bottom. He’s the exact opposite of what he was in the original movie, a cool, confident guy.
Most of the beginning is all about Johnny trying his hardest to avoid ever running into Daniel who is now a confident and successful car dealer with dealerships all over.
When the two characters are finally forced together, Johnny responds exactly like you would expect someone at rock bottom to. He acts a bit scared, defensive, embarrassed, and angry.
It’s pretty cringey.
Throughout the rest of the season and series, Johnny begins to learn that the way he goes about life and sees it, is what is bringing him down. He begins to grow. We are again shown this in a plethora of ways and montages, but for what we are talking about, the best showcase of this is how he responds when forced together again with Daniel.
Instead of cowering and hiding, Johnny stands his ground and we see glimpses of the old confident Johnny again, except there are subtle changes. A big noticeable difference is that he cares what Daniel thinks about him. Later in the scene and not shown in the clip is Johnny recognizing past wrongdoings and admitting them to Daniel.
If you’re a watcher of the show, you know that this isn’t where Johnny’s journey ends. In fact, he has many setbacks where he reverts to the way he used to be and responds to his world through old learned habits.
That’s where the fictional world and real-world meet. Change is hard. Showing that things aren’t easy makes characters more relatable to readers. It also causes some gut-wrenching moments for them when their beloved character has a setback.
Tips, Tricks, and Techniques:
Using contrasting scenes delivers your point in a quick and easy way. It’s also the simplest way to learn this development through dialogue technique.
You can do scenes all set in the same place as a trigger or nod to the reader that they are about to see some internal development be revealed. For example a therapist or doctor appointment. Or you can have them happen at different locations throughout the story. For example, in a superhero story, you can have each moment the hero and villain meet be the scenes that show the change of character.
Express Characters’ Goals and Motivations
A lot of writers tend to do this one and do it wrong. They’ll have a character directly state what they are trying to accomplish in dialogue to another character. This fails usually because it is an obvious function of the story and it throws off the readers suspension of disbelief and reminds them that it is just a story.
To do this in a way that makes it not seem like a weak veiled attempt, think back to how we are supposed to use dialogue in our stories. Subtext. It’s the difference between having your character say, “I want to be the best baseball player.” and “I want to be remembered for something.” Don’t say what they are exactly going to do but what their internal need and motivation is.
Deterioration or Victory of Self
As your story progresses, instead of doing contrasting scenes between the same characters, have the dialogue of the character change as the story progresses, both in terms of themes and speech patterns. A happy character at the beginning can go from positive long winded dialogue to stilted and shortened pessimistic phrases. Or the happy character stays happy and begins to speak in more direct and tyrannical ways because their positivity and way of life has been reinforced repeatedly throughout the story.
The benefit of doing it slowly over the course of the story allows for subtle changes that go unnoticed by the reader until the end when they realize that the character is no longer who they once were. Perfect examples of this are Jessie and Walter White from Breaking Bad. Another example from literature is My Fair Lady.
Have a line repeated throughout your story by either all characters or one and have it take on different meanings throughout the story. An example of this is in the movie Heathers where the main character says to her father that he does certain things he doesn’t like because he is stupid.
When it is first said, it is more of a joke and kinda funny. As the story progresses and parents are put into this clueless light of never really knowing their children, the phrase becomes darker and shows that the character too realizes the stupidity, not just in her parents but in herself as well. In Heathers, this technique is stacked on top of the Contrasting Scenes technique.
You can do this in your own work by picking a phrase and setting it into different scenes with various emotional tones and meanings for the character. Or even by having two or more characters exchange phrases, showing their arc reversals. A great example of this is the phrase ‘No Mercy’ from Cobra Kai.
Withdraw and Reveal
This is another popular use of dialogue to develop, as well as, show character. This is done by having the character get questions about something throughout the story that they never reveal until a crucial moment when they are tested later in the story. Many times when this is done it is to reveal the development of a relationship between characters.
An example of Withdraw and Reveal happens in the Harry Potter series. Dumbledore repeatedly avoids or withdraws from Harry’s questions about his parents and Harry’s own history, stating that he’ll tell Harry when he is older. Rowling does this trick fantastically by having Dumbledore keep his promise but not in the way readers or Harry is expecting. Dumbledore reveals all of this to Harry through Snape’s memories AFTER both of them have died.
Action and Response
Similar to Contrasting Scenes and Repeat Phrases, Action and Response has you present something to your character and have them respond verbally in different ways throughout the story that highlights their development.
You could have a character that is getting arrested respond to their first day behind bars in a shocked, appalled way or in the opposite way; happy, collected. Then have them respond differently after certain events. Perhaps a beat down in the yard has caused them to instead of being appalled, turn mousy and reserved.
In the Joyce Carol Oates book Foxfire, this happens with one of the characters, Legs, after being arrested and sent to juvie. The way she talks before the arrest is wild, carefree, and dangerous. After she is released, her dialogue changes to being dangerous, thoughtful, and paranoid.
This is common in fantasy stories or stories where a character is inducted into a new world whether fantastical or real like a fraternity. This method is similar to Deterioration of Self, but focuses less on showing how the character loses or finds themselves and more on showing how the character is moving through and learning a new world.
At the beginning of the induction, have the character encounter words, phrases, and speech patterns that are different and new to them. As the story progresses have them begin to assimilate and use the same types of words, phrases, etc. Harry Potter and Percy Jackson are examples of this, along with Legally Blonde.
Seeking Help in Unlikely Places
This is one of my favorite techniques because it gives the readers an unexpected reversal, shows how a character has developed, and leaves the readers and audience wondering what is going to happen next. A technique that serves multiple functions usually causes a big response in the reader.
Seeking Help in Unlikely Places is when the character goes to the last person they would ever want to turn to — an enemy, old friend, -ex, etc. — for help. By having your character speak with another character that they previously have sworn off or loss connection with, you’re creating a bit of irony and conflict for your readers. It also shows that the character has grown or changed in a fundamental way.
This can be done in your own work by having the character that has been sworn off or banished be a key component in what the other character needs or wants to accomplish in the story. This happens a lot in movies and books so can be seen as a trope or cliche. To make it unique and different to your work, try thinking deeper about the concept and how to subvert it.
Some of the resources listed below may tell you information that goes against what I say. That doesn’t mean one is wrong and the other is right. Writing is subjective. My knowledge comes from working in the field as a professional writer and editor for years. Same as a lot of the people sharing advice. We each bring our experiences of what works and what doesn’t.
At the end of the day, you are the writer of your work and craft. Choose the information that works for you — meaning, try different tactics and see which actually is right for your story.
That is the process of learning and growing.
- Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action for Page, Stage, and Screen by Robert McKee
- How to Write Dazzling Dialogue by James Scott Bell
- Write Great Dialogue by Irving Weinman
- Story Grid: How to Write Dialogue
- How to Format Dialogue– this is something that I see a lot of errors with when editing or judging pieces, so make sure you are aware of all the different ways to format the dialogue you are writing.
- Guide to Improving Dialogue by NY Book Editors
- Brandon Sanderson- Dialogue Mechanics
- Jerry Jenkins- How to Write Compelling Dialogue: A Proven Process
- Jenna Moreci- How to Write Dialogue: Character Voice