July 10th, 2017

Subterfuge in Dialogue

Becca Puglisi

Dialogue—good dialogue—is tricky. Mechanics can be learned; the rules are readily available and are hammered into us by teachers, editors, critique partners, and countless Facebook memes. The hard part of writing good dialogue is nailing the back-and-forth, the natural ebb and flow that turns dialogue into convincing conversation.

This is the part that will make or break you with readers. They’re intimately familiar with conversation; it’s how they communicate, how they connect with others. As a result, when a bit of dialogue falls flat or doesn’t ring true, it’s like an off-pitch violin sawing away in an otherwise harmonious orchestra.

So how do we make our characters’ discussions sound authentic? One way is to showcase what they’re hiding. In the real world, we’re rarely 100% honest in our communications with others.  It may not be conscious, but we’re always withholding something—hiding how we feel about a subject, suppressing information, agreeing with someone when in actuality we don’t agree with them at all…Much of the time, we’re only telling part of the truth.

This will be true of your character, too, and for his dialogue to resonate with readers, you need to be able to show what he’s repressing. To discover this, you first need to know what he’s hoping to get out of the discussion.

When a person engages in conversation, they do so with a certain objective in mind (even if it’s subconscious). When you identify that goal for your character, you’ll know what they’ll be likely to hold back. So ask yourself: Which of the following outcomes is my character trying to achieve with this conversation?

  • Connecting with others
  • Getting information
  • Giving information
  • Persuading someone to one’s way of thinking
  • Being affirmed or agreed with
  • Gaining an advantage
  • Being proven right
  • Getting attention
  • Gaining an ally or advantageous contact

Once you know what your character wants, it’s a matter of figuring out what they might be holding back during that exchange. Consider the usual suspects:

Emotions

Feelings are largely what make us human. We connect emotionally with others, so being able to accurately communicate our feelings is important. But emotions also make us vulnerable, so in many scenarios, your character may think it’s in her best interest to mask what she’s feeling. If she’s attracted to someone, she may downplay that until she can see how the other person feels. Sadness is often perceived as weakness, so she might not be willing to put that on display. The same is true with fear. Personality also plays a part in how your character conveys emotion, so take all this into consideration when you’re determining which feelings your character is comfortable with and which ones she’s likely to whitewash.

Opinions

We all have opinions about stuff, and we like to share them. But we’re also social creatures, wanting to be accepted by others. Sometimes, those two desires are at cross purposes, meaning we can’t both share our opinions and connect with people. This is why your character might not be entirely forthcoming about his true beliefs at a job interview, on a first date, when he’s meeting his future in-laws, at church, or in any other situation where doing so could undermine his goal in that moment.

Personality Traits

Strengths and weakness commingle to form our individual personalities: we’re patient but selfish, generous but impulsive, irresponsible but encouraging. Our strengths are easy to show off because they make us look good. But weaknesses? While we know that everyone has them, we don’t want people to know what they are. So we hide the traits we deem as being less valuable, the ones that could hurt our standing with others. Maybe it’s a flaw that isn’t appreciated in society, like cruelty or intolerance. Perhaps it’s something an important person in our life doesn’t value, like a father who can’t stand indecisiveness, or a grandparent who viewed generous people as being suckers. It may not be a conscious decision, but we all highlight our admirable traits and hide the ones that make us look bad. The same should be true of our characters.

Information

Rarely do we reveal everything we know. Communication very often is about the give and take of information, so unlike some of the other things we might hide, this one is usually more purposeful. Our characters should play their cards close to the vest, not sharing information that could hurt them, make them feel uncomfortable, or impede their goals. They may choose to hold an important tidbit back until they have a better feel for how the conversation is going or where the other person stands. Information is always currency; in dialogue, it should be doled out carefully and thoughtfully.

Knowing what your character wants out of a conversation and what he’s going to hide while engaging in it will help you write dialogue that rings true, because readers will see themselves in those ambiguous moments. Granted, there’s a knack to writing the inconsistency between your character’s words and what they really think or feel. That’s a post in and of itself. For now, this tip sheet has some great advice on how to write subterfuge in dialogue. (HINT: There are more checklists like this at One Stop For Writers!)

What else might our characters hold back in their conversations? And what other common goals can we add to this list?

About Becca

Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.

29 comments to Subterfuge in Dialogue

  • A good article. I saved it for future reference. Stiff, stilted conversation is a quick turn off for me.

    • beccapuglisi

      So true! Consistent and true-to-life dialogue is one of the indicators of a strong character voice, and when it doesn’t read naturally, it pulls me right out.

  • Good information. I love writing dialogue. It comes easy and is more like transcribing my characters’ words, but on a second pass, it’s good to have this kind of a checklist to make sure my characters aren’t rambling and babbling the way I do.

    • beccapuglisi

      Lol. Babbling is something we all do, and we do want our characters’ dialogue to mimic real life, but not to the point that it’s annoying or difficult to follow :).

  • carrienichols

    Wonderful and timely article! Thanks, Becca. I love writing dialogue and can have pages of it in my first drafts. I then have to go back and add all the ‘in-between’ stuff. Which is what I’m doing right now so this article and image will be a helpful tool.

  • Orly Konig-Lopez

    Fabulous post, Becca. I love writing dialogue. When I’m doing revisions, I’ll read sections of dialogue without the “noise” of the rest of the book and pretend I’m listening to people talking in a restaurant or coffee shop. If it makes me groan, it’s out. I’ve put down a number of books because of stilted dialogue.

    • beccapuglisi

      Oooo, I love this technique. What a great idea, to read the dialogue in isolation and imagine that it’s a real conversation you’re hearing!

  • Great post, Becca! The timing’s a bit coincidental, too, because my new WIP features a character who has a (*ahem*) talent of lying believably and getting away with things as a result. So I’d imagine that someone with such a skill would have learned to avoid the tics and tells you mentioned in this post, correct?

    • beccapuglisi

      Nice! Yes, I’d think either consciously or subconsciously, they would know to avoid those giveaways—and to recognize them in others. A talent I wish I possessed (recognizing them, not avoiding them, lol)

  • Very helpful information. I’ve saved it and will share with my writing group.

  • christopherlentzauthor

    Just the right thought-provoking information and just the right time. THANKS!

  • I LOVE writing dialogue! But yes, it’s hard to make it as snappy and move-the-plot forward as it needs to be. This is a fantastic checklist!

  • Richard Rybicki

    Great article, lots of great info and tips. I love writing dialogue and also reading great dialogue. And the best I’ve ever read is the dialogue written by Elmore Leonard. Every writer should be reading and studying his dialogue.

  • angelaackerman1

    Great stuff, Becca. Learning to craft strong dialogue isn’t a luxury…it’s a must. There’s just too much of it in a novel for us to not fully hit it out of the park. 🙂

  • This is a fantastic post. I once read a YA book where the 15 year-old protagonist kept saying ‘for’ as in, “I knew they were coming for the dog started to bark.” It drove me mad. In the end it was all I could think about.

    Thanks so much for the post.

    • beccapuglisi

      Lol. I wonder if that was a cultural difference. I might expect something like that in a book translated from another language, but you’re right. That would drive me over the edge.

  • Dialogue doesn’t come as naturally to me as description. In the first draft, my characters are too formal and polite. Thanks for the great article!

  • Jack

    Thanks for the article Becca.
    I couldn’t help but think that your characters location, his or her environment can also have a direct or indirect impact on how your characters dialogue should be presented.
    Image for a moment a conversation someone is having with another person while driving or if they are having the conversation with someone on the phone while driving. In both cases, especially while talking and driving, a person’s comments are affected by what is going on around them, traffic, weather, stop lights, etc.
    Now if you take those same two characters and they are sitting on a bench in a park, at a mall, even at a restaurant, or an office or a police station, the nuances of their discussions are going to be affected by their environment.
    In any case, the tone being used in a characters dialogue, should reflect directly or indirectly how the environment affects it. Perhaps you covered this and I missed it-in either case, I look forward to your feedback and those of others that shed light on this aspect of writing proper dialogue. Thanks again.

  • […] Readers love the book if they love the character. Janice Hardy discusses creating your characters, while Becca Puglisi show how to put subterfuge in dialogue. […]

  • Fae Rowen

    You’ve given us an amazing amount of resources to take our dialogue writing to the next level, Becca. Thanks so much for the bullet points and your shared resources. Your post reminded me that I do most of these things for one character, but the other character not so much. More revisions today!

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