Deflection in Dialogue

Deflection in Dialogue
Deflection is one of the many techniques discussed in Sol Stein’s marvelous book

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IN his book, On Writing, master editor and storyteller, Sol Stein stresses that good dialogue is never on-the-nose. It does not solely focus on the plot. It is certainly never trivial, unlike much of the dialogue we hear in casual conversations at parties or in supermarkets.

Good dialogue is oblique and unexpected. Yet, in deflecting, it hints at the very secrets the characters are trying to hide. It heightens our sense of intrigue, curiosity, and suspense.

Deflection takes several forms. Here are some examples:

Types of deflection

1. Abruptly changing the subject:

“Got that hundred bucks I lent you?”
“Went to the bank to draw it. Saw your girlfriend in the queue. Don’t think she spotted me. Too busy falling all over some guy with male model looks.”

2. Answering a question with a question:

“Have you ever stolen anything of value from a friend?“
“Are you serious?”

3. Silence:

“Are you having an affair, Peter?”
Peter looks at his wife but says nothing. At last he gets up and pours himself a stiff drink.

4. Action that is at odds with the dialogue:

She slaps him hard across the face so that his hair flies to the side.
He responds: “If you ever stop doing that I’ll leave you.”

5. Counter attacking:

“You look bad.”
“So do you.”

6. Threatening :

He says: “Don’t wait up for me tonight, honey. Working really late at the office again.”
She says: “Mind if I drop by after gym to say hi?”

7. A counter revelation:

“I’m sorry Sam. I never meant to sleep with your girlfriend. It kinda just happened. And it was only that once.”
“That’s ok, Ben. It’s not like I haven’t slept with yours!”

In each case deflection acts to parry the original question or statement.

Summary

Deflection, in its various colours, is indispensable to the writing of good dialogue. Done well it helps to sustain curiosity and suspense. Use it often.

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Stavros Halvatzis

I'm a writer, teacher, and story consultant.

4 thoughts on “Deflection in Dialogue”

  1. Great Post. Great dialogue makes great scenes makes great stories. The master of dialogue without question is Martin Scoresese. Pick any scene from wolf of wall street. “you show me your check for $72000.00 I’ll quit my job and I work for you” ( this tells us that this character is a risk taker) I highly recommend Goodfellas. Joe Pesci gives a Oscar winning performance as a physio path.

  2. Yes, true, Stephen. But then most transient fiction, Sol Stein’s apt description of popular fiction – as opposed to literary fiction, suffers from this dialogue-for-plot-and-be-damned attitude.

  3. I enjoyed this, Stavros – thanks. In the past week I’ve read John le Carré’s “A Legacy of Spies” (where the dialogue is unconvincing) and Rachel Kadish’s outstanding “The Weight of Ink” (where the dialogue is superb throughout). If ever you want to give an example of horrendous dialogue and terrible (lack of) characterization but excellent narrative, any Dan Brown will do. I chuckled over the play on words (transferred epithet) in your third example, while number 7 reminded me of one of the best comebacks [I know] in film (which was accurate contetextually). From “Cabaret” when Sally Bowles and sometime lover Brian Roberts are arguing. And then: Sally: “Actually, I’m fucking Max.” Brian: “Actually, so am I.”

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