Clumsy dialogue – your mission statement for a subtle scene

246805948_c436365936_oI was editing a manuscript and came across a confrontation scene. It was well set up so that we understood the stakes, the context and why this encounter would sizzle. We were about to watch a protagonist face a mischief-maker and warn them off.

Except the dialogue was painfully obvious. Realistically, the characters should have been tiptoeing about, laying hints, oblique warnings and making concealed excuses. Instead, they came baldly out and said what was what, in a way that was unrealistic for their situation and personalities. Indeed, one of the characters said things that would have been professional suicide – when they were usually much smarter.

But wait!

Although it was unconvincing, it certainly wasn’t bad work. Indeed it was a very useful way to mark out what must go in a scene where there’s a lot simmering under the characters’ words.

What I advised my writer to do was this. Make a copy of the plain-speaking on-the-nose version, and highlight the dialogue in a colour. This is what the characters really mean. Then rewrite so that they try to get this across without saying it. If one of them originally had the line ‘I know you started that malicious rumour’ or ‘I’m in love with your husband’, make them try to convey it in another way, by steering the conversation, making hints and watching the other person pick up the cue.

It’s not all speech

Non-verbal reactions are very useful in oblique dialogue. After all, a conversation with a heavily shaded meaning is a highly emotional situation. Characters might panic, develop a visceral sense of wrong or injustice. They might insist more strongly that they were right, or back pedal shamelessly. Even, a character might not know what they’re trying to say and surprise themselves with how much they reveal in an indirect way.

Their spoken lines may sound innocuous to an eavesdropper, but you can demonstrate their inner state with gestures, expressions, pauses, and nervous abuse of the cafe teaspoons.

Clarity first

Readers love to spot what’s between the lines and a scene that is undershot with subtext can be immensely satisfying. But until you know what your people mustn’t say, it’s hard to write it well. Indeed I see a lot of scenes that suffer from the opposite problem. I’ve seen many a scene drown in opaque, vague fluff because the writer wasn’t clear what was going on.

So if you’re having trouble with a nuanced, subtle dialogue, write the clumsy version. Splurge everything out. Describe the elephant in the room, its every wrinkle, eyelash and toenail. Then go back on another day, rub it out and leave just the hints and shadows.

Your clodhopping dialogue could be the mission statement to a fine scene.

nyn2 2014 smlThere’s a lot more about dialogue and subtext in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel 2.

Thanks for the elephant pic Bitboy

Do you have problems with writing oblique dialogue? Have you any tips to share? Let’s discuss!

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  1. #1 by Lisa Nicholas on March 7, 2015 - 10:21 pm

    The method you describe here is one I’ve learned on my own, through many, many rewrites of key scenes of my current work-in-progress, my first novel, Cast Into the Deep Sea of Stars (presently in Draft 4.5). I’ve learned that I have to let myself write those dreadful, flat-footed scenes, just to get the basic shape of the dialogue laid out on the page. The next day, the first thing I do is go back over the scenes I wrote the day before and start cutting and “burying” things. Then I write on, continuing with the next new scene (which will subsequently be edited in the same way). I may do this to the same scene several days in a row before I’ve got it more or less as I want it.

    Giving myself permission to write flat, obvious dialogue on the first (or second) go-round is quite freeing — much better than obsessing over perfection and getting so hung up that I lose all momentum. I look forward to editing scenes that I’ve already written — in a way, it’s a much more enjoyable creative challenge than writing scenes from scratch.

    • #2 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on March 8, 2015 - 6:47 am

      Hi Lisa! ‘Flat-footed scenes’ – that’s a terrific description of the problem. It’s like most of the writing process, in fact. There’s a lot that doesn’t come out perfect but we have to hone, highlight, bury, layer. I’m another of those writers who enjoys this process of assembly and sees it as creative. If I’ve got raw material, I have something to make better.
      Thanks for a good comment!

  2. #3 by raizscanlon on March 8, 2015 - 1:36 am

    Great advice, Roz! I laughed to myself, thinking of those James Bond or Batman scenes where the villain carefully explains their plan, and the protagonists then meet after to explain how they will thwart the dastardly plan.

    I’m going to look out for such “Batman moments” in my text now!

  3. #5 by Teddi Deppner on March 10, 2015 - 7:06 pm

    I tend to be plain-spoken, and many of my characters suffer from this. I’ve learned to do what you’re talking about — go back and think of different ways to say things that more closely match my character’s personality and the relationship they’re in with the other people.

    But sometimes I forget to go back and fix things. Thanks for the reminder!

    • #6 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on March 10, 2015 - 9:12 pm

      Hi Teddi – that’s such a good observation, that we might not realise we’ve given characters our own speech habits. Thanks for sharing that!

  4. #7 by Cheryl McCullough on March 11, 2015 - 8:53 pm

    Great advice! I will be trying this out tonight on a tricky scene I’ve been working on. Thank you Roz 🙂

  5. #9 by jennifermzeiger on March 12, 2015 - 4:44 pm

    I never thought to write out all the intended dialogue first…then rewrite it. I’ve got to try this.

  6. #11 by Natalia Erehnah on March 22, 2015 - 12:10 pm

    I Interrupted my WIP to write what was to be a fun, easy, and breezy short novel featuring a feisty, 58-yo protagonist who takes on a second career of fairy godmother to middle-aged women. Lots of dialogue crept into the manuscript and I often find it not-quite right when I read. After reading this post, I see that I making the talk to stiff. Onwards to rewriting.

  7. #14 by Joseph McGarry on March 23, 2015 - 2:29 am

    I see this all the time in the movies and on TV.

    • #15 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on March 23, 2015 - 9:42 am

      Unfortunately so do I! But it’s crass, isn’t it? We don’t have to write like that.

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