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Blue Square


Life lessons

on the craft 

Dialogue & Building Character

My friend Brian visited me one winter, and he snowboarded for the first time (I normally ski, but I own a snowboard and ride on non-powder days). As we rode the chairlift up for our first run, I told him all the little nuances I had learned. He nodded along and listened. At the top, we strapped in, and he just took off, under control and flying faster than I’ve ever gone on my board. Wait, what? This it was his first time on a snowboard? It was then I remembered he was a collegiate wakeboarder. He just transferred the skills.

Writing is no different. In their real lives, your readers spend a massive amount of time talking; thus, they know nuances and subtext and implications in dialogue. They’ll transfer those nuances in context and they’ll read between the lines. This is why we can overhear people talking on a cell phone in public and know their story based on just a few details. Approach writing dialogue from this angle – that the readers need to “overhear” your characters. When you trust your readers to infer, you can craft your dialogue around implication, not explanation. Like my friend Brian on his snowboard, your readers will transfer what they know into your story.

Bad Dialogue Scenario #1

Sam and Bill work in the same office. During work, Sam jumps out from around the corner. “Boo!”

“Ah!” Bill said, “you scared me!”

Why this is bad: Trust that your readers understand (by inferring) that “jumping out” and “Boo!” and “Ah!” combine to indicate Bill is startled. Thus, Bill’s second verbal response is pointless. Instead, craft Bill’s response in a way that implies more about him than just his superficial reaction.

Better Dialogue Scenario #2

Sam jumps out from around the corner. “Boo!”

“Ah!” Bill clutches at his heart and breathes deeply. “You jerk!”

Better Dialogue Scenario #3

Sam jumps out from around the corner. “Boo!”

“Ah!” Bill flinches. “Stop doing that!”

Why these are better: Notice how both of Bill’s reactions indicate the “startled,” but each in a different way. The first indicates that Bill is mad at Sam and his reaction is more physically based. The second indicates that Bill is more annoyed and the dialogue implies that Sam scares him often. These interactions give more than in-scene chit-chat. We see hints about other character traits.

Now let’s talk subtext. Subtext is like flirting – it’s the message behind the words, it’s what you’re saying when you’re not really saying it. Stereotyped example: An Italian mobster says, “It’d be a real shame if someone were to throw a brick through your window.” Really, he’s threatening to throw a brick unless he’s paid. He’s not expressing sympathy.

You can develop subtext by having two characters “talk past” each other. If one character doesn’t want to talk about an issue, have him/her respond with semi-related responses. Start with the end in mind. Know what your character is feeling and thinking on a deep psychological level (developing that understanding is a different article for a different time) and show that through reaction. Compare the three examples below and notice how the reaction-dialogue increases conflict and shows the character’s psyche even though the stimuli (the starting dialogue) doesn’t change.

Bad Example #1

Mom: “What did you get on your math test?”

Child: “I only got a D- and I feel really bad about it.”

Mom: “You studied so much, why didn’t you do better?”

Child: “I guess I just need to deal with my own inadequacies as a math student.”

Why this is bad: This dialogue is WAY too overt. Each character is fully self-aware (unrealistic) and has no worries about speaking exactly what he/she feels (diminishes conflict):

Better Example #2

Mom: “What did you get on your math test?”

Child: “I’ve got to get to baseball practice.”

Mom: “You studied so much, did you do well?”

Child: “Coach said he’d be mad if I was late again.”

Why this is better: This shows the child is dodging bad news. If he did well, he’d say so. By NOT responding to the question and focusing on his other priorities, he’s building conflict through avoidance. In this way, he “wins” the argument not by stating facts or reasons, but by making baseball practice more important. The real issue, however, goes unanswered, and the tension builds.

Better Example #3

Mom: “What did you get on your math test?”

Child: “Why are you always bothering me about grades?”

Mom: “You studied so much, did you do well?”

Child: “All you ever talk about is grades, grades, grades!”

Why this is better: The subtext here is the same – the child didn’t earn a good grade. While only slightly avoiding (like the example above), the child is mainly attacking. This leads to that deeper psychological understanding of the characters, and raises an important thematic question to develop throughout the story – Does the mother only care about grades, or is the child manipulating his mother’s emotions?

Trust that your readers will transfer their real-life skill of interpretation and understand subtext. This allows you to then invert your craft – consider the deeper emotional feeling, what would the character say because they feel that... and then have them act because of that emotion instead of state that emotion.


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