Monday, November 26, 2012

An Author's Secret to Snappy Dialogue in Action

As promised, today we're gong to apply the three step method to improve some bad dialogue. If you haven’t already, check out An Author’s Secret to Snappy Dialogue, the prelude to this post where I introduce the method.

But first a disclaimer: what follows does not represent my actual thought process in revising any portion of Entanglement, rather it is a simplification intended to illustrate a strategy's possible effectiveness. I want to stress that it is merely a tool, and like all writing tools, should never be your sole consideration in any writing decision. Also, the explanations may be overly complicated, and you may disagree with my reasoning or the method itself--so I invite any criticism, comments, or questions you may have to what follows!

Okay, let's get started. Here's the bad dialogue:

“Tell me the truth. Are you his half?” said Aaron.
“I don’t know,” said Amber. “I won’t know who my half is for another week.”
“Don’t you think it’s weird that he thinks you’re his half?”
“He doesn’t think he’s my half.”

The problems:

Aaron and Amber are stating their thoughts directly, which people rarely do, and then are not addressing each other’s implied meanings. Let’s use our method to make this better. Let's start with the first line.

“Tell me the truth,” he said. “Are you his half?”

This line implies an accusation, so in reality, Amber would be disinclined to give him a straight answer. Instead, she might try to be cryptic. The literal response, “I’m too young…” turns into, “I’m seventeen,” a simple statement that implies the same thing. Okay, let’s take a look at the next line:

“Don’t you think it’s weird that he thinks you’re his half?”

Let’s make this line more indirect. One way to do this is to state evidence rather than conclusions. So this line becomes, “Why is he making a collage of your face on his wall?” This also implies that there’s something weird about it. On to next line:

“He doesn’t think he’s my half.”

Since we changed the previous line, this line is now a response to Aaron’s implied meaning rather than his direct meaning, so it’s already better. But we can still work backwards on this one and make Amber’s line indirect as well. Now she’ll say, “he’s a family friend.” This implies that he’s not her half, but it also completely ignores Aaron’s implication that there was something weird about the relationship—and the collage. Instead, it’s as if she responded to Aaron saying, “why is he so close to you?” Remember, characters make their own interpretations of other people’s meanings, and if they don’t want to address something, they won’t. But rather than say, “I don’t want to talk about it,” Amber sidesteps the question by addressing only one of the concerns Aaron implied, but not both. You can play tricks like this because ignoring someone’s implied meaning is believable while ignoring a direct meaning is less so. Let’s add a few more lines to this and some body language and see the final result:

“Tell me the truth,” he said, “are you his half?”
“I’m seventeen,” she said.
It wasn’t even an answer. “Why is he making a collage of your face on his wall?”
“He’s a family friend,” she said.
“Who happens to be obsessed with you?”
Amber smoothed her fingers slowly through her hair then let it swish back, fanning Aaron with the smell of her vanilla shampoo. “Isn’t that what boys do?” she said.
“The sick ones.”
“Maybe I take cute pictures,” she said.

In the final product, Aaron and Amber appear to be snapping out retorts. A lot of the meaning of the conversation is implied, rather than directly stated, giving us the sense that there's a lot more going on underneath the words--which there always is.

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, help me out by sharing this post with a friend using the button below. And don't forget to check out Entanglement to see the actual snippet of conversation and many more like it.  Or you can start reading it for free here!

Dan Rix, author of Entanglement


  1. This is great advice. I tend to focus most heavily on clarity, so snappy dialogue might actually be a weak point in my writing. Thanks for the tips!

  2. You bet! I think your priorities are spot on. Clarity is more important than being snappy. Of course, the challenge is to be clear and snappy:)

  3. You've got some good ideas. I need to incorporate them into my writing.

  4. Thanks, Richard! I'm glad you're following the blog.

  5. Clever ideas about dialog. I bet you're not too easy to manipulate in a conversation, since you get the underlying dynamics.