Show, not Tell

There are 3 rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.

Lesson 10

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This lesson is about dialogue (I’m not sure when we started spelling it dialog), because it’s really important. Even Nathan Bransford thinks so in his recent article, “Seven Keys to Writing Good Dialogue.”

I, however, would like to propose an eighth addition to Mr. Bransford’s list.

8. Good dialogue reveals character relationships.

Often in real conversation, people, especially good friends, have a rhythm and cadence about what they’re saying that incorporate spoken word, unspoken word, gesture, and history. This is too hard to convey in books without creating a Giant Wall of Backstory or telling the readers everything, which is often a no-no.

While dialogue should not be expository in nature, it should be able to say what it means.

Alicia Ransley calls this “interlocking dialogue.” It’s some kind of writerly phenomenon where a normal conversation is given some context by adding in small verbal clues about what the speaker actually means without outright saying it. I’ll take Alicia’s wonderful example and show how it might sound in real life.

Jessica’s IRL version
John: What’s changed is the value of your love.
Mary: No, it hasn’t. It’s always been the same.
John: Then now I’m not regarding it as a trap.
Mary: A trap? My love is?
John: I didn’t say that. I meant not anymore.
Mary: But did you last month?
John: Yeah, I did.
Mary: That was just a month ago.

The point of Alicia’s original was, I’m assuming, to show that the characters really understood one another. The second version, which is what you might hear in real life, seems stilted. They seem to be missing each other’s points. Without context, some of it is missed. No one wants to read between the lines of your dialogue to get at what the apparent meaning should be–they look between the lines for the hidden meaning.

Alicia’s original
John: What’s changed is the value of your love.
Mary: That hasn’t changed. It’s got the same value as it always did.
John: Well, then, now I realize it. I’m not regarding it as a trap now.
Mary: A trap? My love is a trap?
John: I don’t mean it’s a trap. I mean I don’t think of it that way anymore.
Mary: But you did last month?
John: Last month. Yeah.
Mary: Just last month.

Alicia’s original is both somewhat expository, but also natural. It shows that these characters seem to really listen to one another, and understand. Although it still sounds like a fight, it no longer sounds like an attack or accusatory–just, perhaps, desperate to be on the same page. The dialogue reveals their relationship, that they understand each other, that they’re close, and that they’re probably still in love.

I think between characters, demonstrating their relationship by making sure the characters are picking up on the right words and using them to answer makes for good dialogue. Some characters may miscommunicate, maybe they don’t like this person so they don’t even care what they’re saying and it may even show in their conversation.

Does anyone else have any ideas about what good dialogue should accomplish?


Written by Jessica Lei

September 9, 2010 at 4:48 pm

Posted in Dialogue, Lessons, Writing

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