Wednesday, November 21, 2012

An Author's Secret to Snappy Dialogue

Another installment of Writers Wednesdays.

Let’s start with three truths:

  1. When real people talk, they almost always imply things rather than just state them outright.

    When you said: “Careful, there’s a cop up there.”
    You actually meant: “Slow down, you’re going too fast.”
  2. When real people respond, they rarely respond to the literal meaning of your words. They respond to what they think you meant.

    When the boy says: “What time is it?”
    The girl says: “Quit worrying. We’ll be on time.”

    She doesn’t say, “It’s four o’clock.” Instead the girl responds to what she assumes the boy means, which is, “I’m really worried about being late.” Notice that one line of dialogue will have different answers in different situations. Here’s another answer to the same question.

    “What time is it?”
    “I’m sure they’re fine. They’ll be home any minute.”
  3. People interpret those implied meanings based on what THEY’RE thinking about—or worried about—which is usually only loosely connected to what the other person just said. Here’s another example.

    “Let me show you how to do it.”
    “Buzz off. I’m not stupid.”

What this means for the writer

Ever heard of that saying, “93 percent of communication is nonverbal?” The truth is, people are seeing body language, hearing tone of voice, and interpreting based off past events—then sending out their own equally complex messages. As a writer, though, you only get to use the words—the leftover seven percent. And therein lies the problem. If you write as if your characters are just using words, readers will feel like your dialogue is only 7% of real dialogue, or superficial. Seems insurmountable, doesn’t it?

The Solution

Write dialogue as if the rest of that nonverbal communication is there. It’s easier than it sounds. Here’s the three step method I use:

  1. For every piece of dialogue in your book, ask yourself, what could this be implying? There will be many answers. The more askew they are from the original line, the better (within limits, of course). Choose one.
  2. Have the next character respond to the implied meaning, not the actual statement. Think back to our “what time is it?” example.
  3. Better yet, make that response you were just about to write down the implied meaning, and work backwards to an indirect statement.
On Monday, I'll walk you guys through an example of dialogue between Aaron and Amber and show you how I got to the final result using this method. So stay tuned! Make sure you subscribe to the blog so you don't miss that post (you'll see the "follow by email" widget on the right sidebar, along with a few other options).

11-26-12: The post is up! Check out An Author's Secret to Snappy Dialogue in Action.

Thanks for reading!
Dan Rix, author of Entanglement

P.S. If you haven't already, take a look at the first three chapters of Entanglement


  1. Thanks for the insight and examples Dan. Lots for me to think about as I jump into fiction writing.

    FYI, I have subscribed to your site via the RSS feed, and all of the example text above was missing (the parts in white). It is probably trying to display the white text on a white background when I view it in Google Reader - just thought you would want to know.


    1. Tim, thanks for the heads up! I bet that's exactly what it's doing. Fixing it now, so hang in there:)