I keep coming back to the notion that what is unsaid is as important as what is said. This can be something that is implied through non-verbal communication, like fiddling, through what they avoid saying, or through a meaning beyond what the characters’ words. This can sound difficult, and it can be made to sound harder, but the important thing to remember is that when we’re writing the first draft we don’t have to keep thinking, ‘what are the character’s really saying?’
Some people will tell you that you should always be thinking about the layer beneath, but this implies actively thinking which can lead to a block because we begin to worry too much about that ‘deeper meaning’. If we don’t get the words on the page then there can’t be a ‘deeper meaning’. Sometimes in a first draft it’s best to put aside consciously thinking about the ‘deeper meaning’ and let the subconscious mind do its work as we go. We may find when we come back to edit that we have put the meaning there without realising it, or we may write something then realise what the characters really mean. During the first draft we can fill a page full of completely banal dialogue and then while editing cut it down to the two really important lines hidden within the banal.
The deeper meaning of dialogue is part of what can make characters’ speech interesting but when we talk about ‘deeper meaning’ we don’t necessarily have to mean a philosophical point or a hidden agenda it can be something as commonplace as sarcasm or irony. Your character makes a sarcastic comment to another and you’ve got deeper meaning because the words they say aren’t their actual meaning. The idea that ‘deeper meaning’ is something philosophical can be one that can be over emphasised sometimes and worries writers. I know when I was younger I sometimes worried that my prose had no deep meaning and people would think they were empty. As I discussed in my article on themes this is rarely true.
On the other hand if we spend our time trying to invest all our dialogue (or prose) with deep philosophical meaning it doesn’t mean that people will catch the meaning or they may interpret it completely differently. Or, another risk, is that we spend so much time trying to invest meaning we actually remove it and make the speech flat and lifeless. The trick is to try and leave a space for the reader to fill rather than have characters say everything they’re thinking. As I said in my internal monologue articles (Getting Internal and Getting Characters Thinking) a character could think something but not necessarily say it. For example, saying they like someone’s outfit when they don’t. If it’s mentioned or suggested that there is a pause between the question and the answer the reader might infer this or they might not, it depends on the reader. Either way this would be a ‘deeper meaning’ to dialogue but it’s not a philosophical one.
It can be a difficult balance to find when you know exactly what a conversation is about and want to tell the reader but at the same time know that if you tell the reader everything they might enjoy your story less. As you develop your writing you’ll find you can tell where a bit can be cut or added to give dialogue that extra bit of depth without explicitly telling the reader everything that is happening.
The primary thing we need to try is not to worry what other people will think about what the characters are saying and focus on what we feel the characters are saying and what feels right for them. People will agree or disagree whatever we do because we can’t please everyone. We can only try to please ourselves and if we want to read it other people will too.
Where there is a writer there is a reader.