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Better Left Unsaid

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When we write dialogue in a first draft, most of us try and make it sound informal and natural. Conversational, because it’s supposed to represent a conversation. But not too conversational, of course. If you transcribed verbatim almost any real conversation you hear in a day, you’ll read it back and realize it sounds much like incoherent blather. So you attempt a better version of the real thing.

When revising dialogue, though, I find myself cutting and cutting, trying to leave much of what I want revealed left unsaid. Because what’s unspoken is often far superior to what is spoken.

The point of dialogue in writing is not to be chatty and reach a word-count goal. It’s to convey certain information in a way most suited to conversation. By now you’re probably thinking, “Thanks for the tip, Captain Obvious.” But hear me out.

Let’s imagine Detective Sandra Blake, the heroine in your murder mystery, is interviewing Gustave, a witness:

Blake nodded. “What were you doing when you heard the scream?”

“I was in the kitchen, washing the dishes.”

Okay, that’s simple enough and probably truthful. Just not terribly interesting. What it needs is a less direct response. So maybe instead Gustave glances down for a second, and says:

“Nothing. I was in the kitchen.”

Now we have fewer words spoken and less information superficially delivered, but more meaning conveyed and more information below the surface hinted at. Gustave is less than forthcoming, even evasive. The glance away signals a lie. He was doing nothing? Just standing there staring into space? Detective Blake has already seen the kitchen, and she knows that the double sink has a window overlooking the courtyard outside. Gustave was in a position to glance out the window at the sound of the scream. Yet he’s avoiding the obvious.

Another approach is to have Gustave steer the conversation in a different and surprising direction:

Blake nodded. “What were you doing when you heard the scream?”

Gustave studied her evenly. “In my country, Detective, we learn not to hear.”

Remember, story without conflict is not story. Always strive for conflict, even in dialogue. And conflict is often strongest when it occurs without being said at all.

Watch the movie adaptation of Martin Cruz Smith’s 1981 crime novel, Gorky Park. The dialogue crackles from start to finish. Study the scene in which Soviet homicide investigator Arkady Renko, played by William Hurt, engages in a friendly chat in the bathhouse with American industrialist Jack Osborne, played by Lee Marvin. Superficially, it’s pleasant enough, but the tension beneath words spoken and unspoken is electric. Each line, each word, is freighted with threat and meaning. Renko is essentially saying—without actually saying it—I know all about you, and I’m coming for you. And Osbourne is saying, You’re way out of your league here, Junior, but would a nice little bribe make you go away? Brilliant dialogue, and you hang on every word.

 

 

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Ken Pelham’s debut novel, Brigands Key, won the 2009 Royal Palm Literary Award and was published in hardcover in 2012. The prequel, Place of Fear, a 2012 first-place winner of the Royal Palm, was released in 2013. His nonfiction book, Out of Sight, Out of Mind: A Writer’s Guide to Mastering Viewpoint, was named the RPLA 2015 Published Book of the Year. Ken lives with his wife, Laura, in Maitland, Florida. He is a member of the International Thriller Writers. Visit him at kenpelham.com.

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4 Responses

  1. Peter Guinta
    | Reply

    Mr. Pelham:
    Your piece on writing dialogue was interesting. I’m a retired small-town journalist — working on my second novel — so I’m familiar with keeping quotes tight, but I still learned a few things from your contribution. Thanks. Incidentally, my co-author Randy Cribbs and I won the Royal Palm Literary Award in 2006 with our short story collection called “Illumination Rounds.” It was 12 stories about Vietnam, before, during and after. In 2016, I (self) published, “Well of Bones,” a novel about a score of St. Augustine, Florida, war veterans angry at watching news stories of ISIS atrocities. They organize a private mission to take on jihadists. I’m proud of the writing, but it didn’t sell very well or win any awards. But it did accomplish my life-long dream of having a novel in print. I’ll be looking for your books now. I read a lot of fiction, trying to find a good structure for my current work, as yet unnamed. Thanks for the piece.

    • Ken Pelham
      | Reply

      Mr. Guinta,

      Thank you so much for reading and for the kind words! I’m glad you found it useful. I try to keep dialogue relatively short for most characters, as that seems to work best. Like with any prose, it just sounds better when sentence lengths vary.

      Best wishes in your writing!

      –ken

  2. Elle Andrews Patt
    | Reply

    Great reminder, Ken, to keep dialogue relevant and advancing the story, not just there to fill space! Love your example. “…washing the dishes.” really kills the moment, whereas the other two ramp it up.

    • Ken Pelham
      | Reply

      Thanks, Elle!
      I must admit, my first draft dialogue includes a lot of small talk and “washing the dishes” responses. I try to do better in the second draft.

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