When writing dialogue, it’s important to consider both what the character is saying, and what they are revealing. There are 4 ways that dialogue can reveal new information to the audience:
1. Questions a character asks.
2. Statements a character makes.
3. How a character responds
4. Vague Remarks & Implications
Questions are very useful in dialogue. They reveal what a speaker does and doesn’t know (through implications), and they serve as a minor conflict unto themselves.
Questions are a great way of prompting other characters to reveal information that the audience doesn’t yet know. All it takes is one character who doesn’t already know, and a reason for them to be curious. For example, if Jon asks Amy “What do you think of my new Mercedes Benz,” the question implies a few possible pieces of information:
1. Jon recently purchased a Mercedes Benz.
2. Jon values Amy’s opinion about the topic.
3. Jon has reason to believe Amy has a relatively high level of knowledge on the topic.
Keep in mind that people don’t ask questions out of the blue. Something prompts the person to either think of the question or prioritize it. For example, many people don’t ask “what’s for dinner” until they feel hungry. Something prompts them to think of that question. The timing of a question carries its own implications, particularly if a character experiences a delayed reaction. For example:
Imagine that two old friends, Sarah and Mark, are talking amongst themselves at a coffee shop. Sarah is telling Mark about her new job, and her new boss, Jen Smith. Mark suddenly remarks “Isn’t she nice?” Sarah could respond with “Wait, you know Jen?”, but she’s so caught up in her own story that she just keeps talking. She replies “I’m so lucky to have her as a boss. Why just the other day…” It isn’t until later that Sarah realizes that Mark may know Jen. Now Sarah has a new question, “Does Mark know Jen? And if so, how does he know her?”
If questions establish conflicts, statements resolve them. A statement is a direct and clear piece of information. They resolve a problem, reducing tension and slowing the pacing of the story. For example:
“I brought pizza.” Whether anyone was actively thinking about food, that conflict, or potential conflict, has been resolved. When characters make a statement, the story can respond in 3 ways:
1. Re-problematize the issue.
Someone might not like pizza. It could be too hot. Maybe there isn’t enough. Whatever the reason, the conflict is reignited.
2. Establish a different conflict.
It could be a new conflict, such as needing plates or napkins, or it could be an old one, like the fact that Mike loaned Dave some money, and Dave still hasn’t repaid him.
3. Allow the characters to savor the resolution.
Focus on the details, the feeling of contentment.
Sometimes statements can be a source of conflict, particularly accusations.
“You stole that.”
“He must have sped the whole way.”
But then again, accusations have inherent implied questions.
What will the accuser do?
How will the accuser respond?
What’s Unsaid-Responses, Vague Remarks, & Implications