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Dialogue Should Denote Mindsets

Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, Feb. 27, 2021
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Dialogue is a very important element of writing. From novels to webcomics to movies, good dialogue will show things seamlessly, effortlessly, while at the same time they are unsaid.

What I mean to say is that good dialogue will have two levels. One level is going to be the overt content: what the characters are talking about on the surface.

The second level is going to be about their mindset: what the characters are thinking and feeling as they are saying things. What their inner motivation is, or what they'd really like to be saying instead of what they are actually saying.

This second level is sculpted from the choice of words, the tone, the body language, the gesticulation, and the context of what is being said. In short, how a character is saying something is just as important as what it is they are saying.

Consider these two sets of dialogue. The surface content is the same and I am not including any body language or expression descriptions. Do you visualise them anyway?

Dialogue 1

A: “Hey! How have you been!? I haven't seen you in ages!”
B: “I've been okay… Just had to deal with stuff.”
A: “What kind of stuff? Are you in trouble??”
B: “Let's say it's under control.”

Dialogue 2

A: “Oh. It's you. I haven't seen you in ages.”
B: “I've been okay, sorry to disappoint. Just dealing with things.”
A: “What kind of things this time?”
B: “It's under control ok? No need to ask.”

While the surface content is the same, the way the two characters are expressing it gives completely different impressions for the relationship or feelings between them, and possibly what might be going on in their heads without the need for thought bubbles.

In the same token, the same innocuous phrase could denote completely different things, depending on who is saying it and in which context they are saying it.

Consider Landa's almost childlike “wait for the cream!” line in the gif. Does it make you feel excited for the cream, or does it give you a sense that he is dominating and controlling how the woman, Soshanna, eats her dessert?

If it was a child saying “wait for the cream!” to Soshanna, in the exact same expression, would it be creepy or adorable?

Such is the magic of dialogue. Being mindful of who our characters are while we are writing lines for them will give us capacity of conveying who they are a lot more efficiently. Dialogue is an interactive medium which should be always used in context: in context with the character, in context with the situation, in context with the environment. Before our character reads the room (if they can), we should!

How have you used dialogue to convey things without saying them?

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comment

anonymous?

Banes at 2:44PM, Feb. 28, 2021

Great stuff. I always examine my text messages this way - I can often get a magical emotional read that amazes my friends!

PaulEberhardt at 3:45AM, Feb. 28, 2021

Great post, Tantz! You do an awesome job illustrating the power of dialogue and subtext. --- When writing dialogue I found it can help to actually speak it to yourself, ideally even act parts of it out. The difficulty with this is not the ridiculous/awkward moments when you get company - they know me well enough not to call the friendly guys in the white coats right away - but that you have to be constantly wary of not making all your characters sound like yourself. This is where said company could theoretically help but in practice that hardly ever happens. As you said, dialogue only works in context, and they never stick around long enough for me to fill them in on the context and what I'm aiming at (partly because they also know me well enough to know that I might try to get them involved). I restrict this method to key parts anyway, because it takes up a lot of concentration and time. Still it's a great way to get to know your characters and their voices really well.


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