Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Don’t Speak: The Power of What’s Left Unsaid When Crafting Dialogue

By Bonnie Randall

Part of the How They Do It Series
(Monthly Contributor)

As a writer, and a therapist, dialogue is sacred to me; conversations convey so much: personality, preferences, desires, motives, and, yes, a person’s story. Yet in fiction, as in life, sometimes the most powerful message delivered is what isn’t said. The unspoken, the implied, and the evaded can turn up the volume of a story, creating poignancy, pathos, and the tension we are always striving for as writers.

Consider, in particular, the ‘power moments’ between characters: apologies, confessions, declarations of love—these are the areas where silence can be golden. Here are a few techniques to help achieve it:

1. Deleting Lines To Strengthen An Exchange

I’m going to pick on my WIP, The Orchid &The Dandelion, to convey by example. Here we have an exchange between 17yr old Kyle and his father, Chas, who’s in prison for attempting to murder him. This is their first encounter in four years:
“These last few years…did you erase your mother and I completely? Like we didn’t exist?”

“How could I? I still see a blood specialist because of you.”

Chas’ gaze scurried to a spot on the floor. “Why did you agree to see me?”

“Why did you ask me to come?”

“Because…” Chas’ gaze darted up and over him, traveling his limbs. Landing on his neck as if he could somehow see, beneath the skin, blood flowing, hearty and red and pumping—not whisper-weak and watery, full of poison. “I wanted to see you healthy. Thriving.”

“So you wouldn’t have to feel guilty anymore.”

A lapse of silence amplified the hum of the fluorescent lighting above. “Do you really still see a blood specialist?”

“I don’t lie. One more of your genes I was lucky enough to skip.”

That roaming gaze. It made him inch backward, shoes sliding over dull and vaguely gritty commercial lino that made his skin crawl: how many prisoner’s—and visitor’s—feet had it held before?

Chas found his face and this too made him withdraw; his father had always looked over him. Around him. Through him. Never at him.

Funny how once he’d wished for those neglectful eyes to gaze, just once, at him and now all he wanted was to walk—no, run—away.

This short exchange is all about guilt, accountability and victim impact, and my goal is for the reader to feel the discomfort, loss, and animosity between these individuals. Employing the technique of deleting lines, though, consider how the following version is much better:
“These last few years…did you erase your mother and I completely? Like we didn’t exist?”

“How could I? I still see a blood specialist because of you.”

Chas’ gaze scurried to a spot on the floor. “Why did you agree to see me?”

“Why did you ask me to come?”

“Because…”A lapse of silence amplified the hum of the fluorescent lighting above. Then he looked up. “Do…do you really still see a blood specialist?”

“I don’t lie. One more of your genes I skipped.”

Chas looked at him, gaze traveling his limbs. Landing on his neck as if he could somehow see, beneath the skin, blood pumping, red and hearty—not whisper weak and full of poison.

Kyle inched backward, shoes growling a little on vaguely gritty commercial lino that had undoubtedly bore the footsteps of so many prisoners and visitors before.

“You look like a man now,” said Chas, and the wistful shape of his mouth made Kyle take another step back. His father had always looked over him. Around him. Through him. Never at him like he’d ached for—and now didn’t want.

Some 40-odd words lifted from the original scene, and the biggest change, ironically, is the motive for the visit in the first place:
“I wanted to see you healthy. Thriving.”

“So you wouldn’t have to feel guilty anymore.”

Obviously—and everything else in this scene makes this abundantly clear, therefore the literal words actually weaken the exchange (and create redundancy too). So those lines have to go in order so that the reader feels (not sees!) what’s already implicit: the guilt and victim-impact I am shooting for.

Alongside that, some stage direction in the clean version is ‘left unsaid’ too—Kyle’s skin crawling, his yearning to walk/run away—these reactions were all, upon second read, implicit in what was already occurring, and weaker for their expression on the page. Deleting them doesn’t just tighten the paragraphs, it gives them more power in that the exchange shifts, ever so slightly, from telling to showing—and as such is better writing.

But, speaking of stage-direction:

2. Let Stage Direction Speak Instead of Words

70% of communication is nonverbal. Fact. And your characters are people just like you and I—so they will communicate this way too. Therefore, and again in the spirit of showing-not-telling, consider what can be said with a gesture, a facial expression, a shifting of a gaze, a fidget in a chair…. Collect mannerisms by observing people in your surroundings. List what you can see them saying and how you see them say it. Write it in that notebook you carry with you all the time. (I know you have one, Writer—’cause I’ve got one too). Employ these universal gestures in your story and watch your readers relate to your characters on a deeper level because all of a sudden they don’t just hear what they’re saying—they see it too. Check this, a quick couple lines from my new novel In The Summit’s Shadow, within which my heroine has placed a comforting hand on my hero’s knee:
“Where is your ankh?” asked Hannah.

“It was stolen,” he said and flexed his quad under Beth’s hand.

A teensy grin messed with her mouth and he wanted to taste the little smile, steal it from her. Wanted to lean over and whisper into her perfect porcelain ear a thank you for having his back. For sticking up for him. For stealing his ankh and the gun. For protecting him.

Not a single word exchanged between hero and heroine—but a TON of message just occurred there. Le sigh. A painted moment where a touch has said everything.

3. Using Indirect Questions, Answers, and Statements

It’s scary to put yourself out there. No one likes feeling vulnerable, and people don’t relish being ‘caught’. Characters are no different, and usually have a lot more at stake than we do, given the insurmountable odds we create for them. Therefore, like us, they become nervous, evasive, and cryptic sometimes because direct communication means taking a risk.

Consider this exchange where my character Andrew is wondering :
“Afterwards,” he said. “Did…did you miss me?”

Her heart cracked, the sensation so sharp she had to clasp her hands over her chest. Miss the stranger who’d cut her up? No. She didn’t even know who that was. And when that same person appeared now he scared her. But…had she missed Drew, her Drew? “I…,” she began and her voice splintered. She righted it. “Do you remember that summer you came up here when Chas King hired you for stonework?”

Long pause. “Yeah.”

“I…I really missed you.” In fact it had taken everything she had not to hike up here. But he’d never told her to come so she’d stayed home, alone and lonely with her guitar. And then when he had come back to town, earlier than expected, she’d wondered if maybe he’d missed her too….

‘Missed’ him? ‘Missed’ her? Bull. They loved each other, but each is so insecure they just can’t say it—it’s too risky. They might get hurt.

Or here:
“Whatever the hell you think you’re doing here, we’re not adding theft to your B&E charge.”

What?” He was charging her? She gaped and he laughed, not out loud, but an Andrew laugh, just a light in his forest eyes. She stared at it, the way it twinkled like a lantern in the woods. Calling her name. Calling her home.

“I can’t arrest you, Elizabeth. I’m really not a detective right now—remember?”

Oh. Right. Still—“But if you were you’d charge me?”


Her mouth fell open.

“It’s dangerous to hike all alone, Local, and you won’t listen, so yeah, I’d charge you. Then you’d stay safe.”

Why—why?—did that make her knees go to water?

Umm…can I answer that?

Obviously he could have just been direct: “You’d charge me?” “Yeah, dummy. I love you.” (‘I love you’ which is also spelled P-L-A-I-N V-A-N-I-L-L-A, by the way). Yet Andrew’s indirectness carries a different, and stronger, punch (again it shows, doesn’t tell), and the reader, hearing all that’s unsaid, yells: “Tell him you loved him! Tell her ‘I love you’!” while you, the author, are letting them say it (implicitly), allowing the reader to feel it, and love it—but want the words, dammit! And so they turn the page, full of delicious anticipation.


(There’s always a but)

This technique walks a fine line—a lot of reviewers pull their hair out when “A simple conversation could have cleared this entire debacle up, dammit!”—so tread carefully. Examine your exchanges thoroughly and do a cost-benefit analysis as to whether your character has a greater emotional reason for being evasive than the pay-off would be if she or he just shot straight from the hip. You want your reader with you, not frustrated because of you, and you never want to be so cryptic that the CIA sends you a job application with a big ol’ thumbs-up stamped in the top, right-hand corner.

Crafting dialogue, an art within the art of writing. Believable conversations have cadence and rhythm so natural you can hear them in your ear as easily as you see them on the page. And clearly all that’s left unsaid speaks too—these are the opportunities for emotional undercurrents generating depth, feeling, and stronger authenticity in your story.

Bonnie Randall is a Canadian writer who lives between her two favorite places—the Jasper Rocky Mountains and the City of Champions: Edmonton, Alberta. A clinical counselor who scribbles fiction in notebooks whenever her day job allows, Bonnie is fascinated by the relationships people develop—or covet—with both the known and unknown, the romantic and the arcane.

Her novel Divinity & The Python, a paranormal romantic thriller, was inspired by a cold day in Edmonton when the exhaust rising in the downtown core appeared to be the buildings, releasing their souls.

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About Divinity & The Python

Divinity - Where deception and desire both hide in the dark...

The Cards Forecast Work

Shaynie Gavin is so much more than the sexy siren who mixes cocktails at The Python. A carpenter with a business plan, Shaynie is trying to amass enough funds to launch her own dream - Divinity, a place where up-cycled furniture from the past is sold alongside Tarot readings forecasting the future - and all in a setting that could not be more perfect: a former funeral parlor. Shaynie's belief that Divinity is attuned with the passions, the loves, and even the lies of its departed souls, allow her to feel satisfied when the cards she draws there reveal Wands, the Tarot's symbol for work. And yet...Shaynie would be so grateful if the Tarot would also, just once, illuminate a Hellnight from her past. A lost evening whose scars still slither over her skin, Hellnight haunts Shaynie. Yet when she calls the question of that chilling evening into her deck...

The Cards Forecast Love

...and love appears in the form of pro hockey star Cameron Weste. Weste is haunted by scars and superstitions of his own, and he wants Shaynie's Tarot to answer far deeper questions than she first guesses this sexy Lothario to be capable of. Who knew Weste was this intense? The Tarot, apparently. And yet...

The Cards Forecast The Devil

When Cameron Weste lands in her life, a stalker surfaces too, dropping clues to a connection between Shaynie, Cameron, and her lost, brutal Hellnight. Suddenly every card warns of deception, and nowhere feels safe. Shaynie and Cameron have to fight for their love - and their lives - as The Devil, their stalker, is determined to turn the Death Card for them both.


  1. Fabulous post! Subtext is so fun to play with too.

    1. Isn't it? I love to read (and write!) those scenes where there's undercurrents that make you go "Hmm...did he mean *this*? Or did he mean *that*?"
      Anytime you get a reader thinking and chewing, you've got 'em hooked!
      So glad you liked the post, Sue!

  2. This was a fantastic post. One to save! Thanks.

    1. You're so very welcome! I am glad you found it helpful :)

  3. Absolutely fabulous post, Bonnie--well done. And point taken about the fine line. I think sometimes miss a lot of the opportunities for subtext because of insecurity over the reader "getting it". But it's also true that the reader who feels they've caught subtext, seen beneath the surface and figured out a feeling, nuance, lie, etc, for themselves become far more invested in your story because of doing the work, of feeling they've caught something hidden and buried. Your point about cost-benefit analyses in this context is therefore very well- taken. Thanks again!

    1. Thanks Dario. I am the first to 'fess up that I do not always do subtext well and here I think is where we writers need to rely heavily on our crit and / or beta community to reign us in and demand more fleshing out OR green light these sections and assure us that they work.
      Beyond that, you are spot on regarding the observation that the reader will feel a deeper connection to the story if s/he is privy to the subtleties within it - we humans tend to feel very happily included when we are part of the 'inside track' of anything.
      Great discussion! Thanks!

  4. I've been struggling with writing a dialogue-heavy scene, but this article just gave me some great ideas for getting the point across without saying as much. Thank you! You saved me like a million hours of staring at the same page, trying to figure out why it feels off.

  5. They say that when the student is ready the master appears. Thank you, Master.

  6. Sometimes I also struggle with dialogue to make sure it it is not to long. Said is also used a lot in books so I like to use other words for said in the book I am curtainly writing.

  7. Thanks for reposting this, Janice. I'm glad to reread it!