DON’T SAY WHAT YOU MEAN TO SAY

USING DIALOGUE TO CRANK UP TENSION

“Straight-forward dialogue can be a bit…eh…how should I say…. Well, I’d rather keep my opinion to myself.”

Here’s an example of a character backing off from a comment where the meaning is implied. These kinds of lines gave a novel a lot of body and create tension when tension is hard to find, especially if you have a man and a woman drinking wine at a romantic dinner date in the woman’s apartment.

Many writers tend to state the obvious. But this can be a major writing flaw. Whenever something is obvious to the reader and to the characters, these are great times for the writer to intervene by hiding the meaning of his words in clever back-and-forths that have the characters tumbling around the obvious without ever touching it.

WATCH
Stephanie set the nearly empty glass of Montepulciano on the white-cloth table in her living room. “That might be the best meal anyone’s ever made for me, Mr. Collins.” She smiled smoothly. “I can only imagine what’s for dessert.”

I watched her closely, the way her head tilted slightly when she said my name. But I wasn’t fooled. This was the same woman — my girlfriend, might I add — who slept with my partner and thought I’d never find out. “I don’t have much of a sweet tooth tonight.”

She took another sip of her wine, swirled it around. “Surely we can’t have such an amazing dinner without something to help it settle.”

The fitting red dress that wrapped around her body and matched her lipstick ignited all kinds of emotions in me, but I couldn’t let her rope me in, not after what she’d done. “After that steak, I’m not sure I could fit anything else in here,” I said, patting my stomach.

——-

You get the point. There’s a lot to be said, but nothing’s coming out. There’s only the temptation that Stephanie’s offering him, she herself probably confused as to why he’s pushing her away. As the reader, we know why. But, as the writer, keeping that knowledge in our pocket is key to creating tension in the reader’s mind.

And remember, there are two forces at work in this example: 1) Stephanie wants him and 2) Mr. Collins invited her to dinner to inform her that he knows what she did. The way that a writer handles these two forces will be key in creating a powerful scene.

Let’s look at this scene again, but this time, we’ll state the obvious.

——-
Stephanie set the nearly empty glass of Montepulciano on the white-cloth table in her living room. “That might be the best meal anyone’s ever made me, Mr. Collins.” She smiled smoothly. “Now should we go to the bedroom?”

I watched her closely, the way her head tilted slightly when she said my name. But I wasn’t fooled. This was the same woman — my girlfriend, might I add — who slept with my partner and thought I’d never find out. “I know what you did, Stephanie — what you did with Frank.”
——-

Not only does this crank the tension up too fast, but it removes the feeling of persistence that Stephanie has, and it removes the resistance that the main character has. It almost makes dinner seem like a waste of time on his part. Why not just tell her up front if he’s not going to turn the volume up slowly?

Think about a roller coaster. Most of them have that long first hill that cranks and cranks and cranks as it pulls you to the peak, only to click, and let you fall 200ft at over 60mph or more. That’s how our writing should be, in most cases. We should allow the crank to pull the reader in slowly, until that click sends them on the ride of their lives.

Imagine if this scene took a turn. What if the pov (point of view character) gradually began to give-in to Stephanie’s beckoning and ended up sleeping with her that night? That takes the story in a different direction, but it’s another form of tension and anxiety for the reader, because the reader wants Stephanie to be berated for what she’s done. And the reader wants the pov to keep the upper-hand.

These types of twists and turns really make for an exhilarating ride for the reader, and it all stems from the tension that’s built in the dialogue!

What are your thoughts?

4 responses

  1. Good advice – to involve the readers in the journey. The show don’t tell approach always works wonders. However, some authors are either unaware how best to milk given situations or worse – too lazy to bother.

    1. Eric, that’s so true. And without fail, it fails.

  2. TELL books are so boring and I feel, quite patronising, as if the writer thinks the reader lacks imagination and intelligence. The type of dialogue you describe in the first example also aids characterisation, for it is the way in which the put-down or rejection is delivered in this case that reveals to the reader a lot about Mr Collin’s true character. He’s hurt and doesn’t want to show it; he still has his pride; he bides his time, his moment for revenge will come:)

    None of this is said out loud, but the reader can guess at it for they can drawn on their own experience on how they felt when they were betrayed by someone they loved. Instantly drawing in the reader with the dialogue…

    1. That’s so true, Maria. And though I’m not against situations where “telling” must happen, it’s always a good principle to show what happens and let the reader figure out the details or assume certain things that may or may not be true.

      And it’s true: Mr. Collins has a lot of ammo for the moment he chooses to turn the tables on her, if he decides to do so. But his negligence in making a movie, makes the reader pause and wonder (in a good way) what decision he’ll make.

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