How to Write Better Dialogue

Dialogue

Great dialogue sparkles. It imbues a script or novel with a sense of authenticity and character. It injects pace, interest, and relevance. Great dialogue draws the reader or audience into the story and holds them there, delivering meaning on various levels. In this post I discuss some of the techniques used by writers to create effective dialogue—primarily the cover-up as an aspect of subtext.

Subtext and the Cover-Up

Subtext is the meaning that lies beneath the obvious — it is the connotation that springs from the denotation offered by the surface layer. Cover-ups make us wonder what and why information is being withheld, which spikes our interest. Cover-ups in dialogue take many forms, one of which is deflection. Deflection, in turn, may come as a question, a change in subject, action that is incongruous with dialogue, a counter attack, a threat, a joke, silence. Here are some examples:

1. Answer a question with a question

“Have you ever taken money that didn’t belong to you?”
“Do you honestly believe I would ever do that?”

2. A change of subject

“Got the money I lent you?”
“I saw your wife at the supermarket today…talking to some young buck.”

3. Action that is incongruous with dialogue

He slapped her hard across the mouth so that the blood ran down her chin.
“I so love the taste of blood in the morning!” she responded.

4. Counter attack

“You seem nervous.”
“So do you.”

5. A threat

“I’m sorry honey. Don’t wait up for me tonight. Working late at the office again.”
“Mind if I pop in and say hi, anyway?”

6. A joke

“I’m sorry Jim. I never meant to screw your girlfriend. It just happened.”
“That makes us even, then!”

7. Silence

“Are you having an affair, Matthew?”
Matthew looked at his wife for a long while but said nothing. At last he got up and fixed himself a stiff scotch.

In each case, a question or statement is deflected or defused by an unexpected response. The response itself implies deeper layers of meaning which enrich the exchange. This is the most important aspect of subtext.

Summary

Subtext is an indispensable part of dialogue and comes in many forms. The seven examples provided above illustrate some of the ways to enliven and enrich dialogue in your stories.

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