The last post discussed what could be considered the two basic forms of dialogue: questions and statements. But dialogue is also about what’s left unsaid, especially when a speaker actively and intentionally chooses to omit or withhold information.
Responses are an interesting form of dialogue. They are brief statements, often meaningless without a context, and therefore they are almost entirely dependent on what surrounds them. Phrases like “yes”, “no”, or “I like it” are common examples. They emphasize what others have said.
Responses are great when dealing with group conversations. At any given time most conversations are dominated by 2 or 3 speakers, while others spend most of the conversation listening. But every so often someone else may choose to speak, to add their own thoughts to the conversation, and to remind audiences of their presence.
Responses are also a good way of advancing the conversation while still drawing out the tension. Consider the following example, where a group of people are setting up camp for the night, including a fire, when one of them starts to walk away:
“I wouldn’t stray too far from the fire. There are wolves out there, and they can see in the dark.”
“I wouldn’t stray too far from the fire if I were you.”
“I’m not afraid of the dark.”
“What about wolves?”
“I have a gun.”
“But you can’t see in the dark. They can.”
The shorter responses draw out the narrative, creating several small jumps in tension, as more information is revealed. Each new reveal prompts audiences to reevaluate the situation.
Vague Remarks & Incomplete Answers
Vague remarks are another way of managing information. They set up audience expectations while still leaving some mystery. For example, let’s revisit the group by the fire. Someone has started to walk into the dark.
“I wouldn’t stray too far from the fire.”
“I’m not afraid.”
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Audiences have no idea why the character should stay by the fire. It establishes the idea that “it’s dangerous in the dark” without revealing why. This puts audiences on edge, populating the dark with any number of hazards. Every sound or hint of movement becomes a potential threat.
Sometimes it’s what’s left unsaid, what’s omitted, that stands out. There are times where a character is unable or unwilling to directly say what they mean. One common example is in the workplace, where everyone has to be careful.
“I never speak ill of a colleague.”
“But you’re willing to speak well of them.”
“But not now.”
It’s a small gap for audiences to jump, but it does engage audiences, provided they don’t become irritated by a character who expresses themselves in a needlessly roundabout manner.
Statements can also imply actions. This is useful when two or more characters are talking, and the author wants to minimize non-dialogue writing, to maintain the flow.
“Here, try this.”
Jon took a sip. “Not bad.”
The implication here is that someone has handed Jon a drink. Here’s another example:
“All I’m saying is most people couldn’t do that badly if they tried.”
“You hit me? Do you have any idea-Ow!”
“You are so-Ow!”
“I can keep this up all day.”
Regardless of what actions a character takes, there’s always a way of establishing it in dialogue, usually by having another character encourage or warn them, or directly respond to the action in dialogue.
Positive & Negative Language to Reveal Character