I ran into this delicious exchange in a client’s manuscript the other day. Rosemarie, a young virgin, is being seduced by the one eyed man. She distrusts him, she’s frightened, and she’s awash in guilt for the physical attraction she feels toward him.
‘No,’ said Rosemarie. ‘This isn’t right.’
‘No one’s watching,’ whispered the one eyed man.
Creating dialogue with clear, unique character voices can’t be done by rote. But it’s not magic, either. I’ve written before about techniques you can use to enhance your character’s voice and tools you can bring to bear on stiff and formal dialogue. Another way to make your dialogue more authentic and memorable by to make it less explicit. It becomes more real when you leave things out.
Consider how much character conflict is going on behind the two lines quoted above. Being seen is the least of Rosemarie’s objections to the seduction, yet that’s what the one eyed man focuses on. He ignores all of her stronger objections, replaces them with a straw man, and knocks the straw man down. Yet he knows that losing that straw man is all the encouragement Rosemarie needs to give in. He shows himself to be insightful into what’s going on in her head and selfish and manipulative enough to use it against her. And the three words that capture all of that complex characterization are sharp and memorable because so little of it is spelled out.
To one degree or another, all conversations contain subtext – conscious or unconscious assumptions, hidden agendas, or clandestine motives lying behind the speaker’s words. And if you don’t pay attention to subtext, you’ll wind up writing dialogue where all your characters have the same subtext. Readers may not be conscious of it — you may not be conscious of it — but your characters are going to feel subtly the same because, under the surface, they all want the same thing from the conversation. You’ll never see the complex conflict that exists between the one eyed man and Rosemarie because everything in your dialogue is out in the open.
It’s been said that, when he was teaching acting classes, Elia Kazan would often give a couple of students each a slip of paper describing a situation, then ask them to improvise a scene. Thing is, he gave them two different situations. As they improvised, each one seeing the world slightly differently, their dialogue took on some of the confused authenticity and sparkle of real life. [Read more…]