Using Setting to Spice Up Dialogue

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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?


  1. Another way to spice up dialogue is with pacing. If a character is panicked, frightened, angry, or in a desperate hurry, her words will be short, breathless, almost staccato. If the character is feeling relaxed, thoughtful, dreamy, what she says might have a more flowing, rambling pace. Give it a try!

  2. I rather enjoy fiddling with dialogue pacing via the em-dash break. You've seen me do it, I'm sure. 'Course, you can't do that all the time. It gets gimmicky. Sometimes you have to vary it up and use an en-dash....

  3. I like to think my dialogue is plenty spicy as it is. It's all the garlic I use to keep vampires out of my manuscript.

    But seriously, like you I tend to neglect setting and break up my dialogue with action and emotion. I'll need to include wisps of description about my settings during my next draft.

  4. I like this post. I hadn't really thought of examining dialogue sections this way before.

  5. Interesting observation. I would be careful not to do that all the time, as the reader could get annoyed by too much unnecessary information getting in the way of emotion.

    On the other hand, sometimes I actually want to distract the reader from the dialogue. When there's a lot of exposition to feed him, it works to include details about the setting so that the infodump is less noticeable (or plain boring).

  6. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, everyone! It's kinda fun to see different approaches to dialogue.