Guest Post by author and editor, Roz Morris
I was editing a manuscript and came across a confrontation scene. It was well set up so that we understood the stakes, the context, and why this encounter would sizzle. We were about to watch a protagonist face a mischief-maker and warn them off.
Except the dialogue was painfully obvious. Realistically, the characters should have been tiptoeing about, laying hints, oblique warnings and making concealed excuses. Instead, they came baldly out and said what was what, in a way that was unrealistic for their situation and personalities. Indeed, one of the characters said things that would have been professional suicide – when they were usually much smarter.
Although it was unconvincing, it certainly wasn’t bad work. Indeed it was a very useful way to mark out what must go in a scene where there’s a lot simmering under the characters’ words.
What I advised my writer to do was this. Make a copy of the plain-speaking on-the-nose version, and highlight the dialogue in a colour. This is what the characters really mean. Then rewrite so that they try to get this across without saying it. If one of them originally had the line ‘I know you started that malicious rumor’ or ‘I’m in love with your husband’, make them try to convey it in another way, by steering the conversation, making hints and watching the other person pick up the cue.
It’s not all speech!
Non-verbal reactions are very useful in oblique dialogue. After all, a conversation with a heavily shaded meaning is a highly emotional situation. Characters might panic, develop a visceral sense of wrong or injustice. They might insist more strongly that they were right, or back pedal shamelessly. Even, a character might not know what they’re trying to say and surprise themselves with how much they reveal in an indirect way.
Their spoken lines may sound innocuous to an eavesdropper, but you can demonstrate their inner state with gestures, expressions, pauses, and nervous abuse of the cafe teaspoons.
Readers love to spot what’s between the lines and a scene that is undershot with subtext can be immensely satisfying. But until you know what your people mustn’t say, it’s hard to write it well. Indeed I see a lot of scenes that suffer from the opposite problem. I’ve seen many a scene drown in opaque, vague fluff because the writer wasn’t clear what was going on...
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