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I recently read Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin. I like how she uses details from the setting to add tension and mood to dialogue.
Here's an example. The main character, Minli, is looking for a mysterious thing called a “borrowed line” in order to change her family's fortune. She asks a King for advice. The King realizes that the borrowed line is a royal treasure -- a sheet of paper with words that change magically whenever you ask a question. Minli is excited find the borrowed line, but it belongs to the King, and she realizes that he is unlikely to give it to her.
The dialogue starts as the King takes out the paper and reads from it. I annotated the passage to classify the ways that Lin breaks up the dialogue.
"What does it say?" Minli asked.
"It says," the King said slowly, "You only lose what you cling to."
The King's words seemed to hang in the air. All was silent except for the soft rustling of the page in the gentle breeze. Minli, unable to speak, watched it flutter as if it were waving at her. [Setting detail]
"So, it seems your request," the king said, "Deserves consideration. The line tells me as much. Let me think."
Minli looked at the King, quiet but puzzled. [Action and emotion]
"For generations, my family has prized this paper …." The king said slowly. "But what is it really?"
Minli shook her head, unsure if she should respond. [Action, emotion]
"It is, actually," the king said, "simply proof of my ancestors rudeness, his unprincipled anger and ruthless greed.…"
The moon seemed to tremble as ripples spread over its reflection caught in the water. The King continued, again, speaking more to himself than to Minli. [Setting detail]
"We have clung to it, always afraid of losing it," the king said. "But if I choose to release it, there is no loss."
Minli felt her breath freeze in her chest. She knew that King's mind was in a delicate balance. If he refused to give her the line now, she knew she would never get it. [More elaborate internal observation]
"And perhaps it was never meant for us to cling to…," The king said. "So, perhaps, it is time for the paper to return to the book."
A wind skimmed the water, and Minli could see her anxious face as pale and as white as the moon reflected in it. [Setting detail]
The author uses three primary ways to break up the dialogue: action, emotion/internal observation, and setting details. I've been using action and emotion, but setting is something I'll have to add to my writer's toolbox. I like how the short descriptions of moon, water, and wind enhance the atmosphere while increasing the tension as Minli waits for the king's decision.
What's your favorite way to spice up dialogue?