How to Weave Dialogue, Character, and Setting
Three major components of a scene in creative writing are setting, character, and dialogue. You need a time and place for your story to occur, beings experiencing and acting out your story, and characters communicating with each other and the reader. However, it’s not enough to simply have one block of setting, one of character, and one of dialogue. You need to weave these components together to keep your story moving and reader invested.
Make Your Characters Interact with Each Other and the Environment
One of the quickest ways to weave setting and character together is to have your characters interact with their environment in some way. When you do this, you have the opportunity to describe bits of the setting while your characters are having a conversation. Your character might do something as simple as wash dishes, stumble over uneven sidewalk, pet an animal, or sneeze.
The way your characters interact with their environment can also reveal how they are feeling. Are they scrubbing the dishes with all their might as they argue with their spouse? Or are they lazily running a sponge over a pan as they recount a happy memory with their roommate? The force your character uses to complete a task reveals a bit about their emotions.
Here’s an example of two characters from Marissa Meyer’s Scarlet interacting with their environment:
“Where are we?” Thorne whispered.
“Underground loading dock – where they bring in food and supplies.” As gracefully as she (Cinder) could, she climbed over the grate and maneuvered back around so that she and Thorne could both peer through the grid.
“We need to get down there, to that storm drain.”
Thorne frowned and pointed. “Isn’t that the exit ramp over there?”
She nodded without looking.
“Why aren’t we trying to get there?”
She peered up at him, the grate casting peculiar shadows across his face. “And just walk to your spaceship? In bright white prison uniforms?”
He frowned, but any response was silenced by the sound of voices. They ducked (58).
Thorne and Cinder are having a conversation while moving through a tunnel system, while interacting with their environment. They haven’t paused their actions to talk, so Meyer shows her characters having a dialogue while climbing grates and exploring their environment. These characters are also discussing their setting, another way to weave setting and dialogue together. You can include setting in your character’s movement and dialogue in a similar way where appropriate.
To weave character and dialogue, Meyer has replaced some of her “s/he said” speech tags with a character movement. Many of these are actually forms on nonverbal communication like pointing and nodding – an excellent way to mix dialogue and character. If you have a large block of text with “said” in most paragraphs, that might be a sign you have floating heads, where you’ve lost the physical bodies and setting of your characters. Adding character interactions with their environment can ground your characters in the physical space of your story.
Show Your Character’s Thoughts about the Setting and Conversation
Another way to infuse your scenes with your characters and weave them with your dialogue and setting is to include your characters’ thoughts about their situation. These can be literal, italicized thoughts or they can be shown by how your characters react.
What do your characters notice about their setting? Are they sensitive to smells or hyper aware of the shadows in the room? What do they want out of the conversation? How do they feel about the other people in the room? What your characters think about their environment and the conversations they have reveals who they are. It can show their intelligence, gullibility, investment in the outcome, personality, interests, desires, fears, and more. Here’s an example of thoughts weaved in with setting and dialogue from Hounded by Kevin Hearne:
“Dude, that chick is naked!” Meat Loaf exclaimed.
“Whoa,” said Iron Maiden who pushed his sunglasses down his nose to get a better look. “And she’s hot too.”
“Hey, baby,” Meat Loaf said, taking a couple of steps toward her. “If you need some clothes, I’ll be glad to take my pants off for you.” He and his friend began to laugh as if this was incredibly funny, spitting out “hahaha” like automatic weapons fire. They sounded like goats, only less intelligent.
The Morrigan’s eyes flashed red and I held up my hands. “Morrigan, no, please, not in my shop. Cleaning up afterward would cause me tremendous hardship.”
“They must die for their impertinence,” she said and those hair-raising minor harmonics were back in her voice. Anyone with a cursory knowledge of mythology knows that it is suicide to sexually harass a goddess. Look what Artemis did to that guy who stumbled across her bathing.
“I understand that this insult must be redressed,” I said, “but if you could do it elsewhere so that my life is not further complicated, I would appreciate the courtesy very much.”
“Very well,” she muttered to me. “I just ate, in any case.” And then she turned toward the stoners and gave them the full frontal view. They were overjoyed at first: They were looking down and so did not see that her eyes were glowing red. But when she spoke, her unearthly voice rattled the windows, and their eyes snapped up to her face and they realized they were not dealing with the average girl gone wild.
“Put your affairs in order, mortals,” she boomed, as a gust of wind – yes, wind inside my shop – blew her hair back. “I will feast on your hearts tonight for the offense you gave me. So swears the Morrigan.” I thought it was a bit melodramatic, but one does not criticize a death goddess on her oratory delivery (18-19).
Notice how the narrator comments on the situation, telling the reader how insulting a goddess is a terrible idea and acknowledging how wind inside a building is not natural. When Atticus reveals his thoughts, he explains why he doesn’t say them out loud, showing he is smart and in control of his tongue. Readers are gaining insight into his character, the conversation, and the situation through Atticus’s thoughts.
The thoughts and desires of the other characters are also clear in this excerpt. Meat Loaf and Iron Maiden are enjoying the show and hoping to get lucky until they realize they’ve harassed the wrong woman. The Morrigan is angry, firm, and unforgiving. These thoughts are revealed both through the characters’ dialogue and the way they move. The conversation includes words and body language.
Make sure your characters’ thoughts, stakes, and desires are clear to deepen your characters and drive your plot forward like Hearne does.
Why an Editor Recommends Weaving Dialogue, Character, and Setting
You don’t have to constantly weave setting, character, and dialogue. Sometimes you need a couple paragraphs of setting at the beginning to ground your reader in a scene. Other times you need to focus on the conversation. In the Scarlet excerpt, setting was heavily present, but in the Hounded one it’s only mentioned when he windows rattle and Atticus comments on the inside wind. Weaving these scene components together doesn’t mean you always need equal amounts of setting, character, and dialogue. It just means each aspect has enough presence to remind your reader all three are present.
When you strike the right balance, new aspects of your characters are revealed and old aspects are strengthened, the plot advances, your pace is fast enough, and your readers always know where they are and who is present. When they are not balance, your pace slows, your scene feels too rigid and formulaic, and your readers can become confused or bored. To find the right balance for your scene, ask yourself what your reader needs to know to understand and picture that moment of your story. Then ask yourself what they need understand the next moment. Those are the aspects of the scene you need to include more of. Weave your characters, dialogue, and setting together to keep your readers invested and Ignite Your Ink.
What are some tricks you use to make sure setting, dialogue, and character are present in all of your scenes? Share them in the comments below. For more articles on scene building and a free Guide to Building Strong Settings, subscribe to Ignite Your Ink.
Author: Caitlin Berve
Caitlin Berve is the owner of Ignited Ink Writing, where she edits novels, creates video tutorials for software companies, and writes. Using her MFA, she teaches creative writing at conferences, colleges, and Colorado writers organizations. Caitlin seeks to fill the world with the kind of writing that lingers with readers, find magic in modern times, and pet all the fluffy and scaly animals she can.