Four Pillars of Dialogue, Part I: Developing Plot (Ibsen’s “Ghosts”)

Four Pillars of Dialogue, Part I: Developing Plot (Ibsen’s “Ghosts”)

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This is important.

Tell me one thing: Do your characters pull along your plot or does your plot pull along your characters?

In other words: Do you have a plot that’s growing organically or one that feels forced?

If you want to develop a storyline that feels as ticklish as sherbet powder on your tongue, you have a secret weapon to develop plot any direction you want: Dialogue!

But why? What precisely connects dialogue and plot?

One missing link serves as a connector between them. With that link in place, your dialogue will be able to pull your plot along unobtrusively and effortlessly like a tank pulling a roll of toilet paper. So let me, gently and with love, guide you through this post and show you what I mean.

THE SERIES

Allow me, oh dear reader, to present to you the Four Commandments of Dialogue! This is cast in stone. Just like there are The Seven Wonders of the World, The Seven Deadly Sins, The Seven Seas or The Magnificent Seven, I have distilled for you the most basic principles that make up great dialogue.

Well, we just have four. This will be the series:

  1. The Seven Pillars of Dialogue, Part I: Developing Plot
  2. The Seven Pillars of Dialogue, Part II: Carrying Information
  3. The Seven Pillars of Dialogue, Part III: Building Character
  4. The Seven Pillars of Dialogue, Part IV: Unfolding a Realistic World

If you take all of this into account, your dialogue will be brilliant. If you do most of this, your dialogue will still be very good. If you completely mess up one of this, it will be… not so good. Just like with baking a pie, if you mix a spoonful of dog shit into it, even if the other ingredients are of highest quality, it will not be a very popular pie.

To illustrate the magic of dialogue, this series will use the same sample play for all four parts, Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts. It shows masterly handcrafted dialogue.

Because it’s actually four articles, I wholeheartedly encourage you to read the entire play. Even better, read it twice. Even better than better, read it twice and take some notes about its twists and turns of dialogue that catch your eye.

In addition, this series will feature jokes about Ibsen’s haircut. Look at photographs of Ibsen and you will understand why: A haircut like that must be mentioned on any serious writing blog.

To give you a brief historic outline, Ibsen’s hair was originally established around 1870, and planned as an asylum for senile seagulls. In the late 19th century, it was used by the Norwegian government as a fortification against enemies attacking from the seaside. It stood firm.

And without further ado, I present to you article number I:

How to Use Dialogue to Develop Your Plot

THE BASIC IDEA:

Creative Writing

The most essential dialogue function is developing your plot. In fact, developing plot is so basic, many bad writers only use this one pillar and forget about the rest. They are eager to advance their story. To them, their story only consists of plot, and they neglect all the other useful devices like character, realism or entertainment.

But now, let’s hear a drumroll and reveal the link I mentioned above. It’s the one term you will never be able to escape in screenwriting books or classes – even if you covered your ears and went “Lah di da da da,” your teacher would communicate it to you by pantomime: It’s the motivation of a character!

“What does the character want?” is the most favorite question of all time at any screenwriting workshop.

After all, we humans act exclusively following our desires: Whether we want to have something (e.g. grapefruit-flavored toilet paper) or we want to avoid something (e.g. driving into an oncoming truck), our needs and wants have many faces. Motivation is everything.

Writing Dialogue

You might act rationally (e.g. working out) or you might act plain stupid (e.g. Ibsen’s haircut). But in both cases you are acting out of inner desire.

Whether you are obviously acting only for your own benefit (e.g. scamming somebody) or whether you seem to act for the benefit of somebody else (e.g. giving to charity), it’s still because YOU want to do it. Donating for a good cause probably gives you the pleasant feeling of having done something good or the warm feeling that the whales are better off now because of you. Maybe you expect this from you so you can respect yourself. Bottom line is, you are fulfilling a desire of your own.

Characters are always moved by their desires, and story line is moved by characters. The characters’ motivations almost always determine what will happen next in a story.

Look at it this way: If your figures are not acting out of motivation, what else is left? An arbitrary reign by the author, who imposes his will onto the action: Deus ex machina! Awful writing! The audience will feel played with and manipulated.

So motivation is massively important. Now you have to somehow bring across your character’s motivation without being painfully obvious. And what’s the one secret tool that lets you do that effortlessly?

You guessed it, it’s dialogue.

Your Writer’s Toolkit: Masterful Ways to Work Motivation into Dialogue

Sometimes, you can let your characters say directly what they want. That doesn’t mean you can always be as blunt as you wish, but sometimes people just do plainly state what they desire: I want ice cream. I want my bunny slippers.

You just let them say it, then let them go get it while the plot unfolds automatically through whatever they are doing. You use dialogue to show why the plot’s events will be happening.

At other times, you might want to show much more indirectly what they are after. Your figures could just give hints and glimpses by the way they act and react. You can indirectly say what your character wants in innumerous ways.

Imagine a screaming child pointing at a lollipop: The child doesn’t directly tell us what he wants, but we still understand; imagine a teenager sweet-talking her mom about how careful a driver she is – the teen doesn’t tell us directly, but we might understand she wants permission to use the car tonight (and maybe in the end it’s finally time for her to directly ask for the car keys).

You can let your character explain what she wants indirectly by complaining why she doesn’t get it. Imagine an old lady talking about how rude people are nowadays. You can feel she wants to be treated more considerately and that she is longing for the old times.

You can show motivation sneakily by making your character very emotional about what he wants. Just a couple of emotionally charged words are enough to show how your character changes his mind and to steer the plot into a completely different direction.

For example, imagine Lennard the weasel, coming back home after a stressful day of gnawing wood. He just wants to coil himself up into the nice stinkiness of his cave and relax. Standing in front of his door with an empty look on his face, he finally slaps his hairy forehead and exclaims: “Oh my god, I’m such an idiot! The keys!” He then turns around and disappears again.

We haven’t bluntly described what his move is about, but everybody instantly recognizes why he turned around and why his motivation and the course of the story have changed all of a sudden. All explained in nine words of dialogue, because they were strongly motivated by emotion.

Imagine a shady character with sunglasses asking a series of questions about a bank’s security system (“How thick are the walls of the vault?” “When do the guards change shift?”). Your million-dollar-question: What do you think this guy’s motives are…?

Use artful ways to slip your audience what your character wants. Your creativity isn’t bound to any limits.

What the character wants always shines through every single line he speaks. What he wants makes his dialogue. His dialogue is totally him. Great dialogue shows what a character says and what he wants as a unity. Always ask yourself this one question: Which angle does this character view the scene from – from the angle of somebody who wants what?

Be aware that motivation is only the very basic building block of your dialogue – now on top of it, add other blocks like displaying the colorful character of the speaker or entertaining with your words. We will get to them in the other parts of the series. But today it’s about the concrete foundation of dialogue: What does the character want, how does it shine through in what he says and where will it take the story?

Keep in mind, I’m obviously talking about more traditional ways of storytelling here, for there is great literature that doesn’t need a plot (Samuel Beckett, Elfriede Jelinek, etc…).

With all of these dialogue elements, by the end of the series you might feel like a juggler, trying to keep all your balls midair at once… but don’t feel discouraged: Like always, practice is key! When you learn juggling, you start with one ball, then two balls, then add another and another one, till it’s easy to keep a lot of balls up in the air simultaneously. This is how you will become a masterful writer of dialogue.

If the character’s motivation is your car, the plot is the trailer the story lives in. The car pulls along its trailer. And dialogue is the firm iron hitch connecting these two inseparably.

THE MASTER’S WAY TO DO IT:

Creative Writing

Now let’s take a look at how Ibsen’s Ghosts handles all of this. Ibsen really is a master of dialogue – his plays have everything: Characterization, realism, speaking patterns, the complete package.

Ibsen’s plays raised censors’ blood pressures and caused scandals. It only added to his fame and notoriety. He was a greatly successful Henrik Ibsenwriter; definitely much more successful than his hairdresser (see illustration).

See, to talk about how dialogue handles plot, we have to talk about the plot structure of Ghosts first.

Plot development is the most difficult of all seven points to grasp in Ghosts. That’s because the play takes place on two time levels: The present on one hand, and on the other hand the past, in which the actual main action is happening. The present merely serves as a platform on which the characters are able to examine the past. Suspense comes from the figures gradually unveiling the past to each other as well as to the audience.

It might remind you of the point-of-view-structure of crime stories: The audience learns what has happened bit by bit, and this creates suspense. In Ghosts, this structure also means the most important decisions have already been made in the past, before the play begins.

But the present of the play holds an additional, very different kind of suspense for us. It’s the characters clashing into each other over very opposed morals and world views.

Because hardly anything happens in the present, hardly any decisions need to be taken that would influence the plot. This makes it difficult for us to display how motives affect plot. Much could be said about the highly unusual plot structure, but I will save that for a bonus episode of the series.

For now, let’s take a look at the only passage in the play (besides the very end) where somebody makes a visible decision in the present to make a decisive impact on how things will be going. In this scene, Mrs. Alving has just built an orphanage. Pastor Manders, an old friend of the house, tries to convince her not to insure it. He is handling the paperwork and conducting the business of the orphanage for her.

This is the excerpt from the first act:

MANDERS: Shall the Orphanage buildings be insured or not?

MRS. ALVING: Of course they must be insured.

MANDERS: Well, wait a moment, Mrs. Alving. Let us look into the matter a little more closely.

MRS. ALVING: I have everything insured; buildings and movables and stock and crops.

MANDERS: Of course you have—on your own estate. And so have I—of course. But here, you see, it is quite another matter. The Orphanage is to be consecrated, as it were, to a higher purpose.

MRS. ALVING: Yes, but that’s no reason—

MANDERS: For my own part, I should certainly not see the smallest impropriety in guarding against all contingencies—

MRS. ALVING: No, I should think not.

MANDERS: But what is the general feeling in the neighborhood? You, of course, know better than I.

MRS. ALVING: Well—the general feeling—

MANDERS: Is there any considerable number of people—really responsible people—who might be scandalized?

MRS. ALVING: What do you mean by “really responsible people”?

MANDERS: Well, I mean people in such independent and influential positions that one cannot help attaching some weight to their opinions.

MRS. ALVING: There are several people of that sort here, who would very likely be shocked if—

MANDERS: There, you see! In town we have many such people. Think of all my colleague’s adherents! People would be only too ready to interpret our action as a sign that neither you nor I had the right faith in a Higher Providence.

MRS. ALVING: But for your own part, my dear Pastor, you can at least tell yourself that—

MANDERS: Yes, I know—I know; my conscience would be quite easy, that is true enough. But nevertheless we should not escape grave misinterpretation; and that might very likely react unfavorably upon the Orphanage.

MRS. ALVING: Well, in that case—

MANDERS: Nor can I entirely lose sight of the difficult—I may even say painful—position in which I might perhaps be placed. In the leading circles of the town, people take a lively interest in this Orphanage. It is, of course, founded partly for the benefit of the town, as well; and it is to be hoped it will, to a considerable extent, result in lightening our Poor Rates. Now, as I have been your adviser, and have had the business arrangements in my hands, I cannot but fear that I may have to bear the brunt of fanaticism—

MRS. ALVING: Oh, you mustn’t run the risk of that.

MANDERS: To say nothing of the attacks that would assuredly be made upon me in certain papers and periodicals, which—

MRS. ALVING: Enough, my dear Pastor Manders. That consideration is quite decisive.

MANDERS: Then you do not wish the Orphanage to be insured?

MRS. ALVING: No. We will let it alone.

MANDERS: [leaning back in his chair] But if, now, a disaster were to happen? One can never tell—Should you be able to make good the damage?

MRS. ALVING: No; I tell you plainly I should do nothing of the kind.

MANDERS: Then I must tell you, Mrs. Alving—we are taking no small responsibility upon ourselves.

MRS. ALVING: Do you think we can do otherwise?

MANDERS: No, that is just the point; we really cannot do otherwise. We ought not to expose ourselves to misinterpretation; and we have no right whatever to give offence to the weaker brethren.

MRS. ALVING: You, as a clergyman, certainly should not.

MANDERS: I really think, too, we may trust that such an institution has fortune on its side; in fact, that it stands under a special providence.

MRS. ALVING: Let us hope so, Pastor Manders.

MANDERS: Then we will let it take its chance?

MRS. ALVING: Yes, certainly.

MANDERS: Very well. So be it. [makes a note] Then—no insurance.

MRS. ALVING: It’s odd that you should just happen to mention the matter to-day—

MANDERS: I have often thought of asking you about it—

MRS. ALVING:—for we very nearly had a fire down there yesterday.

MANDERS: You don’t say so!

MRS. ALVING: Oh, it was a trifling matter. A heap of shavings had caught fire in the carpenter’s workshop.

MANDERS: Where Engstrand works?

MRS. ALVING: Yes. They say he’s often very careless with matches.

 

The orphanage doesn’t have insurance and burns down at the end of Act II – the whole cause is lost. Even more tragically, Pastor Manders seems to have set the fire himself unconsciously when he threw a smoldering candle into a stack of wood shavings.

Look at the excerpt: Do you see how motive permeates every single word of dialogue here?

Everything the pastor says comes out of his conservative world view, and from his beliefs about God, duty, chance and public opinion. His profession underlines his system of morals and personal beliefs; they are clear-cast and set in stone.

What he wants is completely clear as well: The orphanage should not be insured so he can demonstrate his faith in God and, more importantly, not have his public reputation damaged.

Sounds a bit phony to you?

Mind you, Ibsen and others back then had to fight fiercely for values taken for granted nowadays. When Ghosts came out, it caused a storm of outrage and no European theatre would want to perform it – the play even had to go to another continent to be premiered in Chicago in 1882. Ibsen himself spent 27 years in voluntary exile outside of his home country Norway, because it felt way too windy up there for his hair to hold up like a cockscomb of concrete.

Actually, he probably went away to keep his mind fresh and far from the pressures of his native society.

But let’s get back to the scene: Manders wants no insurance, presumably out of personal motives. You can see how the trained and psychologically astute rhetoric of a priest is behind his every word. He doesn’t try to impose his will onto her in a blunt way, but rather poses his matter as a question (“Shall the orphanage buildings be insured or not?”) so she doesn’t feel pressed. People are a lot more inclined to take a decision if they don’t feel forced or manipulated into it.

Next he agrees with her and confirms her thoughts on private insurance (“And so have I – of course.”). He then asks her an objectively formulated question he knows she has to answer in the way he wants (“Is there any considerable number of people—really responsible people—who might be scandalized?”). He cuts her off repeatedly to prevent her from developing her thoughts.

He also puts his personal well-being into it (“…the difficult—I may even say painful—position in which I might perhaps be placed…”), which serves as the last straw to convince Mrs. Alving. He knows she has once been in love with him and in part still cares about him; and he doesn’t shy away from exploiting that notion.

Once she is convinced, he plays devil’s advocate (“One can never tell—Should you be able to make good the damage?”) and in the end implicitly suggests it is her unbiased will (“Very well. So be it.” This line shows up in my German translation as “As you wish,” which I find particularly sneaky.)

His desire is to protect himself and to demonstrate faith in God. Do you see how every single one of his words comes out of his motivation? Even when he hears a fire has almost broken out yesterday, it still doesn’t change his mind. He gets what he wants and his will has catastrophic consequences when the orphanage later burns to the ground uninsured.

He is displaying his motivation rather obviously to the audience and a little more discreetly to Mrs. Alving.

Rational or irrational motivation?

Who knows! To most of our modern minds, he is a looney, but by 19th century standards, this might be a sophisticated point of view and an elaborate plan. Then again, in Ibsen’s opinion, as expressed through the text of the play, Manders is mindless. In the end, the play is largely about morals.

The pastor tries to camouflage his agenda as if he was doing it for others – God, the orphanage, Mrs. Alving. In reality, he is doing it for himself. His fear of losing his reputation is greater than his fear of the orphans losing their shelter.

Plot DevelopmentIbsen lets the pastor vaguely reveal his real motives (“But nevertheless we should not escape grave misinterpretation (…)”). We also get small clues in his lengthy talk about the position he finds himself in, (“Nor can I entirely lose sight of the difficult (…)”). It’s clear Manders cares more about what other people think of him than what he thinks of himself.

Next question: Are the pastor’s motives conscious or unconscious?

Remember that towards the end of the play, Manders will unconsciously set fire to the very institution he is supporting! Could you imagine a bigger neglect of duty, coming from a man whose very being is built on the cornerstones of duty and faith? Where the hell (and this expression does seem appropriate here) does that move come from?

The answer lies in Manders’s unconscious. It is diligently pushing aside and neglecting anything that doesn’t fit into his rigid world view. But underneath a surface that smooth, some rough rocks and abysses must be hidden.

Ibsen lets us know about Manders’s deeper issues subliminally; you can hardly put your finger on it. It’s the unconscious at work like a superstar.

And what does Mrs. Alving’s desire?

She wants the best for the orphanage; she wants to insure it. But she also wants to see Pastor Manders and everybody involved with it happy, so in the end she takes her decision against insurance.

Could it be that she manages to convince herself that her decision is a rational one? Or does she just want to pass the responsibility of making a decision on to the pastor? Her motive for putting bad money to good use, her unwillingness to deal with the business side of affairs and with her past, and her caring for her son Osvald all drive her actions and dialogue lines in different ways.

Look at how every word she says comes out of her rational being. Look at how she expresses herself with short, to the point phrases, sharp and soft at the same time. Her dialogue flows completely out of her personality.

PLEASE DON’T DO IT THIS WAY:

Fallend groß symbol copyNow, let’s see what this scene might have looked like, if Ibsen had had no clue what he was doing. Buckle up, this is gonna be a gruesome ride…:

“GHOSTS,” GONE BAD

PASTOR MANDERS: Furthermore, my dear Mrs. Alving, there is another topic due to discussion, although I believe a discussion will prove not to be necessary.

MRS. ALVING: What is it, pastor?

PASTOR MANDERS: It is the inherently ridiculous question of whether to insure the orphanage or not. You and me both know better than to take upon us the roles of doubting Thomases, and we are aware that nothing bad will come to pass, but a mere formality requires I pose this question to you.

MRS. ALVING: Formality? How can you be… I’m not so sure…

PASTOR MANDERS: [sharp] Mrs. Alving, if you were going to be talking to me about ulterior motives and disobedience, I would see it as my duty to explain this to you in a manner that will make you understand more clearly! (he leans forward in his chair). The equation is really quite simple to follow: Whatever is the most economical way of running the institution will also be the way that will save the most financial means for other investments concerning the orphans. And that most economical way, and it seems as if I will have to break it bluntly to you, is precisely without any insurance. When we take matters in our hands, let us handle them in the simplest and most straightforward way possible. I really must ask you not to make things more complicated than they are.

MRS. ALVING: [intimidated] Please, don’t talk to me that way, pastor… the world is an unpredictable place…

PASTOR MANDERS: But what for the love of God the Almighty makes you so very scared? Has anything like that ever been imposed onto you? Has it? I dare you to give answer to my question!

MRS. ALVING: So far not, but-

PASTOR MANDERS: And therefore, here you have the confirmation, you said it yourself! Neither has anything of that likes ever happened to me. So if you would please be so kind as to stop giving yourself a fright and just let us relish the joys of doing good. Heaven help, Mrs. Alving, I must ask you to relax and trust in the Almighty.

– END OF HORRIBLE EXCERPT –

 

So far, so bad – but what happened to the play?

Manders still has a clear goal, doesn’t he? He is still talking in his very own pattern, with his specific vocabulary and rhythm of speech. Mrs. Alving is still indecisive and waiting to be convinced. We still know who wants what and which motives are driving the scene.

Question: So where did this version go wrong?

Answer: It went wrong with motivation that is neither congruent nor a casual/natural part of the conversation.

Question: Why is the motivation neither congruent nor a casual/natural part of the conversation?

Answer: Because it is too plainly in-your-face and the character it comes from is non-believable and non-clear-cut. What he is saying, what he wants and how it comes through just doesn’t feel right. His character and speech don’t fit into the scene and into the play. Do you feel it?

This is our little chain: Motivation —> Character —> Dialogue —> Plot. The problem with this example is, the motivations don’t work, and thus their characters don’t work either.

Compare the characters to the originals: The pastor doesn’t talk like a pastor, but like a mobster. He is too pushy in an inappropriate way and generally doesn’t behave like you would expect a priest to behave. He is irresponsible, impatient, flamboyant, harsh and inconsiderate on the surface – this just doesn’t feel right.

Also, could you ever imagine our priest from the hood in the “bad example,” unconsciously setting the orphanage on fire? Consciously – maybe. Unconsciously? I have the feeling this would not happen. The climax of the play with the orphanage burning would seem as artificial as an ostrich equipped with a rocket launcher.

Compare the fucked up version to the original again: Do you see how in Ibsen’s version the man is on a mission, but not admitting it on the surface? In the bad example, it’s kind of the other way around: What he is trying to achieve is very obvious, but his mission is a strangely cramped/tense one. The motives are not underlying motives, but attached on the outside like cheap and flashy bumper stickers.

Even though the framework is the same in both versions (plot, basic motives, pattern of speech), one version works very well and the other one doesn’t work at all. I hope you can see the reasons why it doesn’t.

It’s all about motivation.

THE EXERCISE TO FINE-TUNE YOUR WRITING INSTINCTS:

writing prompts

Now on to today’s writing prompt.

Amsterdam, 17th century: Into the retail store of Master Robin Haase walks Thiemo de Bakker, a talented young painter. Thiemo wants to acquire some special red sand from the desserts of Africa to blend a certain tone of red color for his next big work “The Storm of the Ages.” He has very little dough left though, which Master Haase doesn’t know, but correctly assumes.

Theo is a sly guy who is able to help himself. And he really wants that red sand to perfect his masterpiece.

Master Haase, on the other end, is a no-bullshit businessman and wants to see some hard cash on the table. He is certain he will be able to sell his rare sand to somebody else at a price much higher than the sum Thiemo is offering. He is willing to hear the young fellow out, but once Thiemo becomes too pushy, he just wants to have him out of his store.

Thiemo not being able to attain his sand in Amsterdam later leads him to conduct a dangerous adventure into the heart of Africa.

Write the dialogue unfolding in the shop. Remember the chain of Motivation —> Character —> Dialogue —> Plot. Above all, make sure to concentrate on creating a clear motive coming out of the character’s nature.

This is the most difficult writing prompt on this blog so far, because it plays out on so many levels. But forget perfectionism! Just give it your best shot and it might be awesome or not – big deal.

The Good-Bye Part

Dialogue can help you develop plot. Plot is the laid out path of what the characters want. Make sure what your figures want is totally in line with their characterization and then let them express themselves through dialogue. Plot will follow automatically. The question always has to be: Which angle does this character view the scene, the world from – from the angle of somebody who wants what?

So that’s it for today, girls and boys, I let the curtain fall. I hope you are able to talk about motives like a criminal psychologist now. Once your audience can feel what your character wants and that he will be going for it, the tension in your story will rise to another level. Your characters will be real figures made of flesh and blood, and watching them will become immensely exciting to your readers.

Make sure to take full advantage of this article and post your exercise in the comments.

Ride the Pen!

Ibsen/The Wild Duck Image © Angelero; Ghosts Image © Ldelfoto/Dreamstime

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12 Comments

  1. Claudia

    Great article, I can’t wait to read the rest of the series. I am Norwegian/Brazilian and I love Ibsen and Gjengangere (Ghosts) was a great choice for a dialog example.  I wish I could send you the exercises you proposed. Unfortunately I read the article last night without any extra time to work on a dialog in English, because I don’t write in English it is even harder. I value your articles immensely and I was really happy to read the e-book of the 44 questions and work them with my fiction work…

    I am an experienced non-fiction writer and researcher and I am writing my first long fiction, a historical fantasy and I am struggling to “end of the plot” difficult to me to choose directions, I got attached to characters. I guess I need to strength my dialogues to be able to design the end of the plot in a better way. 

    I am around. Thank you so much for this article.

    1. Alex
      Alex

      That’s great to hear, Claudia! As a non-fiction writer, for sure you bring some advantages with you, like a feeling for structure or language. And now for your historical fantasy, you are going to need some vivid imagination… should be fun to create your world.

  2. Theo Volschenk

    You’re a magnificent teacher, Alex.

    I can’t wait for the other parts to roll out. I find dialogue to be the hardest and most fun part of writing.

    Please, please bring out the rest of the cavalry…

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