Great Dialogue is the Art of the Unsaid

From Writer Unboxed:

As a not-professional editor who nonetheless gets to edit my friends’ writing, one of the most common questions I get is, “Does the dialogue sound natural?”

And often, because my friends are talented, the answer is most definitely “yes.”

But is “natural” really the highest form of dialogue? We all want our dialogue to sound natural, as opposed to stilted, but dialogue can sound natural and still be missing that extra spark that takes it from “good dialogue” to “oh my god, Becky, I will remember this line for the rest of my days” dialogue.

As I looked up some online sources on writing good dialogue that I could share with my friends, I found that many of them repeated the same advice. Most of the focus was on what characters should say, or else how they should say it: dialogue must move the plot forward, dialogue must reveal something about the relationship between characters, dialogue should sound natural but not too natural, dialogue should be unique to characters’ backgrounds, don’t pad your dialogue with unnecessary small talk, avoid greetings and soliloquies and goodbyes, have characters be indirect.

These are great pieces of advice, but even if you follow them to the letter, your dialogue still may come out sounding wooden.

I’d like to offer a third way to look at dialogue, and ironically, it’s through what isn’t said.

“But Kelsey,” you say, “that sounds like ‘show, don’t tell,’ which is the oldest advice in the book.”

Yes. I mean, it is basically that, but “show, don’t tell” was usually framed around character actions, not dialogue: e.g., “Sally was mad” versus “Sally stomped to her room and slammed the door.” Similarly, there is plenty of advice out there that recommends having characters be indirect in their speech (one of my favorite tactics), but that’s not what I mean here, either.

The classic example of the art of the unsaid—and it’s a classic for a reason—is Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.” In this story, the topic of discussion between the man and woman is never made explicit; readers must complete the story by insinuating the couple’s meaning from what they say and how they speak. But if we take our analysis even further, we can see that part of what makes this story so compelling is not just because of what was left unsaid, but how it was left unsaid.

Take this passage, for example:

“Well,” the man said, “if you don’t want to you don’t have to. I wouldn’t have you do it if you didn’t want to. But I know it’s perfectly simple.”

“And you really want to?”

“I think it’s the best thing to do. But I don’t want you to do it if you really don’t want to.”

“And if I do it you’ll be happy and things will be like they were and you’ll love me?”

“I love you now. You know I love you.”

“I know. But if I do it, then it will be nice again if I say things are like white elephants, and you’ll like it?”

“I’ll love it. I love it now but I just can’t think about it. You know how I get when I worry.”

“If I do it you won’t ever worry?”

“I won’t worry about that because it’s perfectly simple.”

Aloud, the man says, “But I don’t want you to do it [spoiler alert for a nearly century-old story: they are talking about her having an abortion] if you really don’t want to.”

But when the woman asks, “And if I do it you’ll be happy and things will be like they were and you’ll love me?” he replies, “I love you now. You know I love you.”

His non-answer tells us everything we need to know about the man’s true feelings. First, by simply avoiding any acknowledgement of the woman’s first two questions—“you’ll be happy and things will be like they were”—we, the audience, can infer that he is not comfortable promising those things because he does not believe them. Had he outright lied to her, this would be a different story: they likely would not be having this conversation at all, because the man would have told her what she wanted to hear in order to get what he wants.

Second, his reply to her third question—“and you’ll love me?”—is equally a non-answer. He replies in the present tense, while she is looking for reassurance about the future. Again, rather than being forthright and telling her that he cannot make promises about the future, he avoids and redirects the conversation.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

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