Writing Dialogue: Saying What You Mean (Not)
We don’t always speak our minds. Sometimes we lie. Sometimes we shape our words to protect ourselves or keep our distance.
It’s as simple as you talking to your crush, but they don’t know they’re your crush and you’re too nervous to say something. You don’t usually admit “I like you” when you see them. You’ll usually beat around the bush like “You’re funny” or if you’re feeling brave, “I like spending time with you.”
Characters don’t say what they mean.
When it comes to writing dialogue, they shouldn’t just word vomit what needs to be said.
They’ll verbally sidestep through tough topics. They’ll answer in a way to make themselves look good. They’ll lie.
It’s part of what makes good characters feel so complex and multi-layered!
In each conversation, your characters have a goal.
It’s usually nothing crazy. Maybe they want information, maybe they want to impose their power (like in the case of sassy banter), maybe they want to catch someone’s attention or instigate a relationship (like flirting). If both sides have a common goal, then their words might lean closer to truth.
In your first draft, it’s okay to have your character’s dialogue just say what they mean. You can have them flat out say “I like you” or “I’m sad” or “I think you’re lying.” You can let them say what they mean.
This will help you understand what’s going on and what they want, so you can go in later to tweak their dialogue accordingly.
In a way, most conversations can be seen as a power struggle. Those are the ones that are most interesting. When you edit, by hyper-aware of how your characters want to be perceived.
Here’s a quick example of a meeting between two characters, Vince and Alice. Alice is miserable and crying in her backyard when Vince unexpectedly jumps over the fence.
Here’s what they MEAN, without any tweaks to their dialogue to hide what they really feel:
The guy jumped backwards at my movement. “You scared me!”
“What are you doing here?” I snapped back, getting to my feet. “Leave me alone.”
“Why? What’s wrong?”
“I don’t want to talk about it. I just want to be alone.” I crossed my arms.
“You probably do want to talk about it,” he said. “It’s not good to keep these things bottled up. We just need an ice breaker.”
Basically, that’s the boring draft. Both characters in this exchange are saying exactly what’s on their mind and not trying to hide anything.
But that’s not very interesting, is it?
Let’s add some background info about these two. Alice. the narrator, has a tough outer shell. She’d never admit that she was sad or upset by something, and especially not to a stranger.
Meanwhile, Vince sort of stumbled into something and doesn’t want to cross any social lines by being nosy. At the same time, he’s a kind-hearted person and wants to help if someone’s sad, but without making them feel awkward about it.
With these motivations in mind, what the characters mean comes out completely different than what they actually SAY:
The guy jumped backwards at my movement. “Bloody hell, lady! You ought to let a guy know if you’re going to pop out of nowhere. You could have killed me!”
“Excuse me?” I snapped back, getting to my feet. “You’re the one trespassing here. Get out of my aunt’s backyard before I call the cops on you.”
He shrugged. “Eh, you won’t do it. What were you doing lying on the ground anyway?”
“Mind your own business.” I crossed my arms. He didn’t press the matter.
“Hey,” he said, wide-eyed and stepping closer, whispering like he was about to confess to murder. “Do you like strawberries?”
So they’ve got conflicting goals here. Alice won’t admit something’s wrong and just wants to be left alone, while Vince is taking the first steps towards figuring out what’s wrong. Even though Alice’s comments are the barbed ones, she’s actually the speaker on the defense. She’s closing herself off, while Vince is trying to open her up.
Which one did you like more?
The actual subject matter between the two examples is more or less the same. So why is the second one more interesting? Because we see that power struggle! They’re talking at each other more than to each other. They’re not just saying what they’re thinking—they’re trying to achieve something.
The first example uses fewer words and will move the pace of your plot along faster. They’re not wasting time with lies or insecurities that keep them from saying what needs to be said. But the second example adds depth to your characters! Each speaker has their own motives and goals, and it’s not always to move things along.
Writing dialogue like this immediately makes the scene more compelling, because we know there’s more to the story. We have to guess what the characters are actually feeling, and it turns it into a kind of game.
So usually, you need a mix. If two characters are really close or in a tight spot plot-wise, they might drop the guard and just say what needs saying. In other spots, where you need to develop character a little more, pay attention to their dialogue and see what you can do to make it interesting!