There Are More Things To Say About Dialogue

A couple weeks back, I wrote a post about dialogue, in which I listed some shoulds and should nots in writing dialogue. If you missed it, you might want to click on the link and get caught up. Go ahead. I’ll wait here.

*munches popcorn*

Two points I didn’t address in that already-long post were tension and subtext. Those are the main points of this post.

Dialogue should: be a source of tension

Dialogue moves the story forward, and this is how that happens. We authors love our tension. Stories would suck without it. I am not saying your characters should argue constantly, because that would get old real quick. I’m saying your dialogue should offer some kind of dissonance that makes readers want to keep reading in order to see how the dissonance is resolved. A character’s words should get that character or another character thinking about or acting on things.

Dialogue should not: resolve tension (not directly, anyway)

Sure, characters can reveal information directly leading to resolution of conflict, but what fun would that be?

“Well, Bob, I know you’re all set to follow clues and solve the mystery, but I thought I’d save you some time and tell you I stole the jackelope display from the museum. I just love antlers on bunnies.”

Even at the end of romance stories, when the seemingly jilted lover confesses his undying affection, there’s still a question of what the other lover will do with the information. Can she really trust him? The confession can lead to resolution, but it’s not resolution by itself.

Dialogue should: include delicious subtext

dialogue not sayingIf we all remember our third grade lesson on prefixes, we remember that the prefix sub- means “under”. The text is the obvious stuff happening in the story. The couple is in the house. They’re talking about dinner. The subtext is the information beneath the surface of the obvious. It’s revealed through beats and how the actual words are said.

The text is what’s said. Subtext is what it means. Consider the example I used in the tags part of the last post:

Sandy slammed the empty plate onto the table lit by the drippy remains of the candles. “I thought you’d be home for dinner.”

Bill stood sheltered by the darkness of the living room. “I didn’t say that.”

“So where were you?” Her voice shook as her tears stole her words.

“Out.” He stomped up the stairs.

On the surface, they’re discussing where Bill was during the dinner hour. But how much information did you get from these four lines that I didn’t say outright? The drippy candles and Sandy’s tears indicate Sandy had prepared a romantic dinner that Bill didn’t show up for. Bill’s standing in the darkness, indicating he’s got something to hide, and his stomping could mean he feels Sandy is intruding on his personal business.

All that information came from subtext.

Dialogue should not: be on the nose

On the nose dialogue is when the character says exactly what the character is thinking. This is what the previous example would look like on the nose.

“I thought you’d be home for dinner,” Sandy said. “I spent hours preparing this romantic meal. I set candles up and made steak, your favorite. I was hoping we could reconnect, because I’m afraid we’re drifting apart, and I fear you’ve been seeing another woman. And now I feel hurt that you didn’t arrive in time to eat the meal I prepared.”

Okay, so this is an extreme example, but it gives you an idea of what to avoid. Two things: 1. People don’t talk like this in real life, and 2. There’s nothing left to infer, giving the reader a ticket straight to Snoozeville. Readers like to be involved with the story. They do this by inferring.

One final point: I put the points of tension and subtext together because subtext leads to tension. Did you notice the on the nose dialogue didn’t offer tension? There could be a question of what Bill will say or what Sandy will do, but the lack of subtext makes me not care very much.

Like the last dialogue post, this one is getting long, so I’ll leave it here along with these questions: Do you find writing dialogue to be a struggle? What strategies have worked for you as you develop your skills? 

7 thoughts on “There Are More Things To Say About Dialogue

  1. Pingback: Story Stuff: D Is For Dialogue | Allison Maruska

  2. Pingback: Four Reasons Readers Skim A Story | Allison Maruska

  3. I think I’m pretty good at writing dialog. My characters are mostly smart and they argue with each other all the time. That impressed somebody who asked how I do such good dialog until I explained that all those voices are in my head – an explanation that kind of creeped him out. Once I said it, I couldn’t think of a way to unsay it or straighten it out. It was a very awkward few moments after that before he remember he had to urgently go do something.

    I have been accused of using flowery dialog tags on occasion, but I’m pretty sure that’s what we were taught in school by the nuns, so who are you to argue with God??? (The person who accused me of it was a self proclaimed POV Nazi and may or may not have been the author of this blog.)


  4. Great post(s) – dialogue is a crucial part of many stories, and really works best when it’s doing ‘double duty’ – saying one thing & implying (subtext) another. It’s communicating multiple ideas through a single piece of text.

    Your example here was great.

    And yes / all dialogue is a struggle for me. I find when I write speech the words feel stilted and unnatural – forced. I try to write a convo in one hit, regardless of how rubbish it is & then Putting it away for a while – makes it easier to edit and the flow seems more natural.



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