Indirectness: The Secret of Great Dialogue

by Amanda G. Stevens, @AmandaGStevens

Realistic dialogue results in believable characters. If the dialogue sounds fake, then the characters feel fake, and nothing makes me set a book down faster than this. Whatever else is done well, if characters open their mouths and I don’t hear real human voices, I’m out.

Not every reader is the dialogue fanatic that I am, but writing craft books encourage us to prioritize this skill. On this note, I must credit two books: How to Grow a Novel by Sol Stein and Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne and King. These books as well as great novels taught me the most important element of great dialogue: indirectness. Characters should almost never say what they mean. After all, real people don’t.
1. Characters should fail to answer questions whenever possible.

Often this can be done with misdirection. Forms of misdirection include changing the subject, answering with another question, and answering an unasked question. Depending on the character, misdirection can be employed with belligerence, timidity, or anything in between.

Examples:

  • “Did you book a flight to California and not tell me?”

    “You know, I’ve been trying to get the air conditioning to work all day, and it just won’t come on.”

  • “Did you book a flight to California and not tell me?”

    “Now come on, would I do something like that?”

  • “Did you book a flight to California and not tell me?”

    “Oh, for crying out loud, I am not breaking up with you.”

In addition, characters should (almost) never answer a question with “yes” or “no” followed by an explanation. The yes/no is implied in what comes after and can be cut.

2. Characters should misunderstand each other … and lie.

Misunderstanding can make for great comedy, but it doesn’t have to. Its most important function is to create genuine human interaction. It can be as simple as misunderstanding someone’s meaning or as complicated as misinterpreting someone’s motives.

Lying is, of course, a bit trickier. Sometimes the character is lying to himself, too. Sometimes he believes a lie is his only option. Sometimes it’s a lie of omission, an exaggeration, or a downplaying of truth. But however the deceit plays out, no cast of characters should be one hundred percent honest one hundred percent of the time.

3. Never use dialogue to inform the reader about the plot.

One way to get around this is to include a character who doesn’t know what’s going on, but this shouldn’t be overdone. If an informational conversation must happen, infusing character quirks and attitude into how they inform each other can make the conversation livelier and more realistic. But never force two characters who already know something to tell each other about it for the reader’s benefit.

4. Subtext is your best friend.

Subtext is defined literally as below the text, more commonly described as between the lines. Characters should leave things unsaid, because that’s how we speak in real life. The examples in point #1 each employ subtext.

The response about the air conditioning might include subtext that California’s weather would be a welcome change, and under that another layer: the characters are trapped in their current life and welcome any form of change, not just the weather. Or maybe the subtext is that Speaker 1 promised to fix the air conditioning (and many other problems in their life together), and Speaker 2 is so tired of non-follow-through she’s decided to escape to California.

Subtext makes dialogue exponentially richer. The layers can be endlessly engaging for the reader.

Another example, from one of my favorite movies, The Magnificent Seven (not the remake…).

Here’s what the characters would say if the writer did not believe in subtext:

Chris: You said you were going to look for the Johnson brothers, to make them pay for their crimes and make sure they could never harm anyone else. I know you didn’t intend to leave them alive. What happened with that? Were you successful? 

Lee: Yes. After a long and difficult ride across the desert, I tracked them down and killed them all. No one will be in danger from them ever again.

Instead, this writer is a subtext master. Here are the actual lines from the movie:

Chris: I thought you were looking for the Johnson brothers. 

Lee: I found them.

Granted, you might be writing a contemporary romance with a main character who is more expressive than these laconic cowboys. But the principle of subtext can work for any character.

So … how to develop an ear for dialogue? Listen to real-life conversations, TV shows, and film. Transcribe them. Really, it works. You’ll see what speech looks like on the page, and you’ll learn to see when your dialogue “sounds fake,” even before you read it aloud.

TWEETABLES

SEEK AND HIDE, Haven Seekers book 1

Six years ago, the government took control of the church. Only re-translated Bibles are legal, and a specialized agency called the Constabulary enforces this and other regulations. Marcus Brenner, a new Christian, will do anything to protect his church family from imprisonment–including risk his own freedom to gain the trust of a government agent.

Aubrey Weston recanted her faith when the Constabulary threatened her baby. Now released, she just wants to provide for her son and avoid government notice. But she’s targeted again, and this time, her baby is taken into custody. If only she’d never denied Him, maybe God would hear her pleas for help.

When Aubrey and Marcus’s lives collide, they are forced to confront the lies they believe about themselves. And God is about to grab hold of Marcus’s life in a way he’d never expect, turning a loner into a leader.

As a child, Amanda G. Stevens disparaged Mary Poppins and Stuart Little because they could never happen. Now, she writes speculative fiction. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in English and has taught literature and composition to home-school students. She lives in Michigan and loves books, film, music, and white cheddar popcorn. Her debut, Seek and Hide, was a 2015 INSPY Award finalist.