MFA Nugget: Dialogue as Action

MONTPELIER, VERMONT: “Dialogue is a type of action: a means of developing dramatic conflict, in which we witness the push and pull between characters.” So said Edgar-award winning novelist Domenic Stansberry in a lecture here at my MFA residency with the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

VCFA instructor Domenic Stansberry

Yes, dialogue is a means of character development, Stansberry said, a way to convey who they are and what they want, “but the search for fulfillment of conflicting desire is at the heart of dramatic dialogue.” The conflict can be overt, he said, but often it is effective when “expressed indirectly, under the surface, handled with misdirection, understatement and various forms of camouflage.”

Stansberry’s lecture featured examples of conflict-driving dialogue in fiction–Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Hemingway, O’Connor–and he is a fiction writer himself. But I was one of many creative nonfiction students in attendance. Dialogue is a critical part of my narrative nonfiction. Even when I don’t have to remember the actual dialogue–when I have it recorded–I still as an author must decide what to include, what to summarize, and what to cut. Finding the lines that highlight that conflict, whether explicit or shrouded, is essential to me just as much as any novelist.

What role would you say dialogue plays in your writing? How have you used it effectively?

ABOUT THIS SERIES: As promised, I am posting occasional “nuggets” of wisdom I am acquiring here at my second residency in the MFA for Writing program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Previous posts include “Illuminating Your Story,” “A Window on Your Narrator,” “Creativity and Wasting Time,” “New Year’s Tradition,” “Storytelling vs. Fragmentation,” “Reading Your Work Aloud,” and “Revision vs. Re-Vision.”

12 thoughts on “MFA Nugget: Dialogue as Action

  1. Yes, great reminder… to keep the “desire” in dialogue compellingly camoflaged. I love writing dialogue because it’s so easy to install the necessary tension that every scene should have. And isn’t it so true to life that we don’t say directly what we mean or want. Dialogue as a fencing match. Makes me want to quickly finish this non-fiction job I’m working on and get back to my pot-boiler novel, “The Dead Don’t Care”. See…that’s a line of dialogue from the story.


    1. What a great title for your book! It says so much about what the reader can anticipate, and creates intrigue. That would be a strong line of dialogue.

      He had a great sample of tension from my all-time-favorite dialogue writer, Hemingway, the opening of Hills Like White Elephants. There is so much tension, from characters talking past each other, hinting at buried conflicts and biases. The conflict jumped off the page, yet the two characters are just sitting at a table in a train station drinking beer.


  2. My memoir is primarily dialogue for I am writing in first person. The only way I or the reader can know the thoughts of the other characters is through action and dialogue. I got inner dialogue happy for awhile and had to tone down how many times I used that.

    Dialogue is challenging though, because we do not write exactly what is said, that would be boring to the reader. Only the heart of the conversations need to be shared. There also need to be a balance of action and dialogue. I’m still learning.

    I pray you have a blessed day.


    1. Hi Heather,

      Yes, I’m writing a travel memoir so I am in the same boat. I have some conversations recorded but am having to recreate others from memory.

      What you said about not writing exactly what is said is critical. At times I’m reshaping a bit what I have recorded when putting it on the page, and frankly I think I’m doing the speaker a service at times. One of the CNF instructors here, Connie May Fowler, said in workshop that the key is to make sure the dialogue is true to the speaker, and sometimes reworded dialogue not only conveys scene and character better than the actual words, but is more true to the person as well, as odd as that may sound.

      Good luck with your memoir! I’m learning as well!


      1. Yes, and cut to the chase. There are some wonderful books out on dialogue. One great example is the phone rings – the author doesn’t need to have the hello, how are you, I’m fine, can I talk to you part of the phone conversation. And yes, each speaker needs their unique voice. As my story is a memoir, I don’t remember all the conversations, but I do know the gist. I showed it to my sister-in-law and brother and they told me I got the setting and dialogue right.

        I wish you well with your travel memoir.


  3. I think one of the best ways to really bring the action into dialogue is to remember that each character in the conversation has their own set of goals. When goals conflict or compete, it adds an additional layer of friction into the back-and-forth.

    I love dialogue–it’s such a valuable tool to both characterize and show emotion. It’s a good way to move away from too much internal thinking and brooding that can slow the pace as well.

    Hope you had a great holiday!

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse


    1. Angela, that is a perfect summation of the lecture, the dueling set of goals. He talked a bit about how interesting it can get as a writer when you have three or more people in the conversation.

      I had a great holiday, Angela, and hope you did as well! 🙂


  4. Pingback: MFA Nugget: Pacing Yourself « The Artist's Road

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