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Saturday, February 9, 2013

(Don't) Tell Me How You Really Feel

I’ve been thinking about dialogue lately. Particularly, I’ve been interested in dialogue where characters don’t say what they mean. In Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern, Stern notes,

“Advice about dialogue generally starts with discussing what your characters say. It might be better to start off with what your characters don’t say and the way they don’t....the more intense the feelings, the more likely people are to say the opposite of what they really mean. If you want to keep a high level of tension, keep the dialogue evasive, filled with suppressed information and unstated emotion.”

He also says that how a character sits, stands, fidgets, pauses, or adverts eyes can be as important as his or her words.

Three examples of narratives that follow Stern's advice are The Office, The Hunger Games, and The Lord of the Rings.

Here are some clips to illustrate. The first video takes place when Michael Scott, one of the main characters of The Office, leaves Dunder Mifflin. Watch how Jim avoids (and gets Michael to avoid) saying what they actually think and feel. The second video is very short, but you can clearly tell through Ryan's tone and facial expression that his words are an understatement of what he actually thinks.

Often The Office plays with the gap between what characters say and actually think for humor.

For The Hunger Games I couldn't find the clip I wanted, but it's the scene at the starting where Katniss and Gale are talking in the forest. In the book, Gale says "We could do it, you know...Leave the district. Run off. Live in the woods. You and I, we could make it." In the same conversation, when Katniss says she never wants to have kids, Gales says, "I might. If I didn't live here." And later, Gale gets frustrated and snaps at Katniss.

What Gale really wants is to be in a relationship with Katniss, but he can't say it straight out. And Katniss, who never intends to live a lifestyle that includes a significant other, doesn't catch on. Gale's real frustration lies in the fact that Katniss doesn't pick up on what he's getting at. That's why he snaps back at her.

And for my last example, I have the very last scene of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Here is the dialogue between Frodo and Sam.

Sam: I wonder if we'll ever be put into songs or tales. 
Frodo: [turns around] What? 
Sam: I wonder if people will ever say, 'Let's hear about Frodo and the Ring.' And they'll say 'Yes, that's one of my favorite stories. Frodo was really courageous, wasn't he, Dad?' 'Yes, my boy, the most famousest of hobbits. And that's saying a lot.' 
Frodo: [continue walking] You've left out one of the chief characters - Samwise the Brave. I want to hear more about Sam. 
[stops and turns to Sam
Frodo: Frodo wouldn't have got far without Sam. 
Sam: Now Mr. Frodo, you shouldn't make fun; I was being serious. 
Frodo: So was I. 

In this example, Frodo expresses how much Sam means to him, but indirectly. It's clear Frodo really values Sam, but instead of telling Sam something sappy, he works it into their conversation. And Frodo takes no chances that Sam will misunderstand him; he makes sure to say "So was I."

So you can play with the gap between what characters say and actually think to add humor or tension. Sometimes playing with that gap creates moments even more powerful than situations where characters speak their minds. If Michael and Jim really just spoke what they meant, the scene wouldn't have been as significant. Same goes for Frodo and Sam. The fact that they withhold their words shows how much those words mean to them.

Do you have moments where your characters don't say what they mean? When do you think it's best to be most indirect? Do you have any other examples I can learn from?

(Watch this post on Youtube here, or listen to it on SoundCloud here.) 


  1. Hi Kami

    Another great post. You mention only briefly about the body language part of the dialogue, but I think it is worthy of more discussion, even its own post perhaps. I dare say with enough body language you could probably get away without dialogue. Maybe I'll do a post on it at some point . . .

  2. Wow this post is helpful and awesome! And makes me want to go and work some magic into my dialogue. :D Thanks!

  3. Good point...I was thinking about that, but maybe it would be better as it's own post. Let me know if you post on it.

    One of my friends gave a good example on my facebook page though: "Your post really got me thinking. I guess my example would be every time Jim from the Office looks into the camera and shrugs. He could say what he was thinking but it is so much funnier with just his side grin and shrug."

    Thanks Konstanz!

  4. I love your posts, Kami, especially when you use anything from LOTR or the office! I've watched that scene with Jim and Michael a lot, and I've actually thought about that before. I think it's the perfect way they say goodbye, and I love how you can tell that Jim doesn't want to cry, but he also wants to let Michael know how much he means to him. I like writing about male characters who struggle to balance their true emotions with their need to be masculine and tough.

  5. Thanks Heather! Yeah, it can be fun writing about male characters that way. I agree. :)

  6. Another example can be found in the snippet you have here is by Sam. He seems to purposely leave out his name duing his dialog maybe as a subdle hint to Frodo that he had a need to be appriciated for his role in how everything played out. It seems like in this scene, they are both saying more by what they leave out then by what they actually say. It really is a brilliantly crafted bit of dialog.

    1. Very astute. That makes me like that dialogue exchange even more. I hadn't thought about Sam leaving himself out like that.

  7. I haven't ever thought of writing this way, I think I'll have to try it. What characters don't say has never really been really huge to me but I guess it's a really important part of writing.


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