Exercise: Using narration and context to shape dialogue

One of the interesting things about dialogue is that you can convey a great deal of information with it.  However, any given line can mean something totally different depending upon the context.

The narrative provides the context through setting, pace, action, and internal motivation.  For instance, take the phrase “What did you say?”

By adding a bit of setting, I can control how my reader perceives the line.

The thumping of bass drums pounded out of the speakers and through her spine.  “What did you say?”

Which is different from:

The principal picked up the scarred paddle from her desk. “What did you say?”

Using narration, I don’t have to say a darn thing about how either of those lines of dialogue are said in order to give them very different meanings.  You can actually take any line of dialogue and shape its meaning by the context in which you place it.

In this exercise, we’re going to work on the use of setting as a way to shape dialogue.   I’m going to give you a transcript.   Your goal is to write two scenes in different settings and change the meaning of the dialogue only by the way you handle the narration.

As an example, I have three versions of the same dialogue below.  The first is the original transcript.  Then I have a fantasy version and then an science fiction variation. I have cut lines and swapped out a few individual words of the transcript but did not add dialogue.  My focus was on the context.

Original Transcript SelectShow
Fantasy variation SelectShow
Science Fiction variation SelectShow

Now it’s your turn. Download the .doc file of the Transcript Exercise.

The rules:

  1. You may cut the dialogue.
  2. You may swap out individual words for instance “B-52s” to “Dragons.” Do this sparingly.
  3. You may NOT add dialogue.
  4. Pick a POV character.
  5. Pick a genre.
  6. Add setting, internal motivation, and other narrative details to create a scene.
  7. Repeat with a different POV character and genre.
Did you know you can support Mary Robinette on Patreon?
Become a patron at Patreon!

4 thoughts on “Exercise: Using narration and context to shape dialogue”

  1. Thank you very much for this. I feel I do well at dialogue, but could very much use the practice on setting the scene. I tend towards sparse and it leads to a bit of confusion.

  2. John Dunkelberg

    Thank you. I actually googled the transcript and found that the (P) and (K) annotation there helped me understand the original flow before I went on to write my own. Thanks for the Writing Excuse.

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top