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So we’ve discussed what we can put into dialogue and what we can take out of dialogue maybe it’s time for what doesn’t need to be said. Previously we’ve looked at the concept of what the reader needs to know and when they need to know it and the same can be said of dialogue. If you listen to the conversations of real people quite often there is a gap between what they’re saying and what they’re thinking; for instance when you really don’t get on with someone but you have to pretend you do versus when you genuinely do get on with someone. These two types of conversation are different, in all likelihood you’ll have a more relaxed conversation the person you do get on with, the banter might flow better and there will be fewer awkward silences.
It’s important to remember when writing dialogue that you don’t need to write it exactly as the characters are thinking it. By which I mean characters can be saying one thing an meaning another; whether it’s a married couple talking about getting milk but really arguing about the faults each thinks the other has, or the old cliché about people falling in love and not realising. In such instances the reader finds it most satisfying if you leave a gap for them to interpret what is happening rather than spelling everything out for them. I wouldn’t worry if in a first draft it seems that you’re saying too much because things can easily be added, removed or moved in editing and sometimes you’ve got to go to the extreme of too much and too little to find your middle ground.
When trying to write these scenes I find it’s best not to try and list all the things I’ve got to get in the scene and simply try to write it through and see what happens between the characters. Sometimes I find that the characters surprise me by the end of the dialogue and it takes turns I hadn’t expected or realised it would that are often more interesting than when I’ve deliberately tried to fit to stringently to a structure. That might make me sound a little bit mad, however I think that if you try to freeform a bit then there’s more space for your subconscious to do its work. People don’t like me to say it because it takes the romance out of writing but I’m not a believer in flashes of inspiration, I think you take in all the information around you and your subconscious processes it and comes out with what appear to be moments of inspiration. Perhaps I simply use that as justification for not writing a plan and you’re free to disagree with me, I’m not going to knock anyone else’s beliefs. I would suggest trying planned and freeform writing to see which one works better for you, as I keep saying everything can be adjusted in editing.
I feel I’m not being specific enough but the gap between said and unsaid is difficult thing to describe because it can vary so much, there isn’t a universal example or a definitive way to do it. Then again, simply because you’ve left that gap and know what you think should be there doesn’t mean everyone else who reads it will infer what you intended. If everyone read the same thing in a piece of fiction then my field of study probably wouldn’t exist because there would be no interpretive space to discuss fiction.
This gap is perhaps the best and most frustrating thing about fiction because the things people read into fiction can be great, but at the same time they can mistake their interpretation for your intention which can be frustrating, particularly if it’s a long way from what you intended.
In the end the only thing you can really do is write what you think feels right for your characters and hope people enjoy it.
For more writing advice try my archive page.