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:
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.