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. So 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 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 their dialogue to resonate with readers, you need to be able to show what’s being repressed. To discover this, you first need to know what the character is 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 their 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 there’s a lot to consider when figuring out which feelings your character is likely to hide.
COOL TOOL TIP: One tool to simplify this process is the One Stop for Writers’ Character Builder. This tool helps you explore all the important aspects of your character so you can be sure all their pieces fit together.
When it comes to hidden emotion, the Emotional Range section in the Behavior tab allows you to play with some vital pieces of information: Is your character reserved or demonstrative to begin with? What emotions are they uncomfortable expressing? What is the character in denial about (and is therefore unwilling or unable to access their true emotions)? What situation might cause them to overreact (possibly because it hits too close to home and touches on emotions they’d rather not share)?
Questions like these provide insight into your character’s emotional range. They can help you determine 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.
COOL TOOL TIP: The Character Builder’s Family and General Life section (part of the Daily Life tab) contains tons of questions that could flush out their opinions—ones the character feels really strongly about and those they’d rather other people didn’t know:
- How does the character feel about their job/school?
- Who does the character despise?
- What are they passionate about?
- Are they religious?
- What topics of conversation will get them riled up?
- How does the character spend their free time?
Strengths and weaknesses 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 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 thought generous people were 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.
COOL TOOL TIP: Figuring out your character’s flaws and attributes (and which ones they may want to downplay) is super easy with the Character Builder. Brainstorm the reasons behind their traits by examining past influences that may have caused them to form.
Then explore various traits to see how they’ll manifest and what emotions might be tied to them.
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. (You can see all our tip sheets about various aspects of storytelling on the OSFW Tip Sheets page.)
What else might your characters hold back in their conversations?
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.