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Monday, June 29, 2020

Breaking Writing Rules Right: "Don't Write Direct Dialogue!"

Over the years, I've done a lot of posts on dialogue, in part because when I went searching for a deeper understanding on the topic, I didn't find a lot of material. One of the recurring things I did find though, was about writing indirect dialogue. And this is absolutely one of the best places to start, when learning how to craft better dialogue. Dialogue should always be saying and doing more than what's on the page.

Almost always, anyway.

Naturally, this means incorporating indirection.

Which plays closely into subtext.

But a few times I've been asked, when is it okay to use direct dialogue? For this post, I have at least four answers.

What's the Rule?

Don't write direct dialogue!

Why it's a Rule

Usually the best dialogue considers what the character doesn't say, and how. In other words, subtext. When subtext happens, the dialogue is bigger than what's on the page--a quality that seems to be key to drawing in readers and writing a great story.

And in reality, most of us do talk indirectly. And we are always revealing more about ourselves than what we say (whether or not we want to). Interestingly, the more powerful emotions we feel, the more indirect we tend to be.

Indirect dialogue also holds more tension. (This again draws us in.)

On the flip side, direct dialogue releases tension, something we rarely want to do.

And when we talk about powerful emotions directly (and disproportionately), they can actually lose power. This is one of the many facets of the "show, don't tell" rule. Talking about powerful emotions directly in dialogue, labels, or in other words, "tells" them, which usually is not as satisfying as showing them so they can be experienced by the reader.

Direct dialogue also means one-dimensional dialogue. What you see (or read), is what you get. This turns the reader into more of a spectator, instead of a participator, in the story (and we want participation).

But a lot of beginning writers write direct dialogue--we probably all did. Writing indirect dialogue is a skill--it takes study and practice (and more practice).

In case anyone isn't quite sure what I mean about direct vs. indirect, here is a quick example:


"You're an idiot, Shelly," Jasmine said.


"You wouldn't know this, but I don't do much writing anymore," Jasmine said. "Those days are over. I use what are called 'ghost writers,' Shelly. People I hire to do the writing for me. I like to sit back and brainstorm a few concepts with a glass of champagne. Do you know what 'brainstorming' is?"

"Yes," Shelly said.

Jasmine simpered. "You're smarter than I was expecting."

In the second example, Jasmine implies she thinks Shelly is an idiot in the way she talks to her (in bold).

I realize this example takes up a lot more space--and sometimes being indirect does. But, as the story builds upon itself, strengthening context, you can be clearly indirect in less space. For example, if the reader went into the scene knowing that Shelly is a world-renowned writer and that Jasmine is stuck up, then a line like "Do you know what 'brainstorming' is?"--is all we need. (Obviously Shelly knows that, so Jasmine saying that is like slap in the face.)

When to Break the Rule

The majority of dialogue should be indirect. That's just the way it is. But that's not necessarily the same as never being direct. So when is it a good idea to say it like it is?

1. When You Want to Release Tension

Indirect dialogue holds tension.

Direct dialogue does not.

When you move from indirect to direct, it releases tension.

And sometimes that is exactly what you need.

It's the same thing in story structure. You start with your hook and introduction, go to the rising action and climax, and finish it up with the falling action/denouement. Or to put simply: introduce tension, build tension, release tension.

The denouement is all about releasing tension--that's why loose ends are tied up (generally speaking).

Releasing tension isn't bad, and if it is done at the right time, can be highly effective.

And that may not be necessarily during the denouement.

Because, as I talked about in this post, that story structure permeates all parts of story (like a fractal), not just the overall plot. Scenes, conversations, even descriptions, have that structure. This means that some direct dialogue may be just what you need after you've introduced and built up tension.

Consider a conversation where two people in a relationship are arguing over dirty dishes. While they might be fighting about dirty dishes, perhaps the real argument (subtext) is about one partner thinking the other might be cheating. Either context or indirectness introduces that idea. And it builds and builds and builds as the fight goes on and on. But for your plot, you don't plan on carrying this conflict through the entire book, maybe only this scene. So, after the conversation reaches its high point, one partner says to the other, "Just like you've been cheating on me with your secretary!"

The other says, honestly, "I haven't been cheating."

And then perhaps through direct dialogue, the problem is sorted out.

During a denouement, not only are loose ends tied up, but changes and ideas are validated and a "new normal" established. So, here in this example, by now talking about cheating directly, it will validate each person's concerns and they can start a "new normal" (one that doesn't include someone thinking the other is cheating).

You've seen similar dialogue arcs before. Perhaps there is sexual tension between the protagonist and love interest, which builds and builds and builds, until one tells the other directly that they love them. And in most stories, that's when the two starting kissing. Both those things are part of a denouement, even if it's not during the denouement.

So when it's time to let go of tension and start a falling action, direct dialogue may be just what you need.

But, I do want to note, it's also possible to hit that falling action without direct dialogue. Say, in the text, the main character intentionally tells the love interest she loves him, indirectly, but it's clear to both of them exactly what she is confessing, so in a strange way, it's direct and indirect simultaneously. But let's not confuse ourselves too much.

2. When Being Direct Adds Tension

In the above examples, tension is released--but only if having an open discussion about possible infidelity or being in love doesn't lead to new, immediate potential conflicts.

Remember, conflicts are problems happening.

Tension is the potential for problems/conflicts to happen.

If we already know that two characters can't be together because a romance will lead to them losing their jobs, which they both need critically right now, then in some situations, one directly confessing love to the other, introduces more tension. It's similar to the "Yes, but" idea--if you are familiar with that writing term.

Yes, the character got what she wanted . . . but now she's going to lose her job, which will create even bigger problems.

In other words, it adds tension.

But, keep in mind, that to some degree, the prior tension is released, if only a little or temporarily (at least until the end of the scene).

Because, say they both want to keep their jobs, so ultimately decide not to see each other. Well, the tension was released during that confession, but in the next scene, we have heightened sexual tension--because each knows the other loves them, but can't act on it. (Leslie Knope and Ben Wyatt's relationship in Parks and Rec is a great example of this sort of thing.)

Keep in mind though, however it plays out, the confession still works as a sort of denouement, because it validates and establishing a new normal (either losing jobs or dealing with heightened attraction).

3. When The Character is Direct

Some rare characters are very direct. It's just part of who they are. But that also means they come pre-packaged with their own kind of writing challenges.

Luna Lovegood from Harry Potter is a great example of this. She almost always speaks directly. But this is because she has nothing to hide. As Rowling once put it, "She doesn't give a d--- what others think of her." So it's not like she needs much subtext.

In one of my ongoing projects, I have a viewpoint character who is similar. Part of me wishes I knew what I was getting into when I started with him, but then part of me is glad, because then I might have picked someone safer. Needless to say, he's been one of the most challenging characters I've tried to write.

You see, the thing with having direct characters, is they lack the usual avenues of tension and conflict. If they are direct, and don't care about being direct, then a lot of techniques you have at your disposal with other characters, are gone. (It took me some drafting to figure out how to work through this.)

But even if your character is direct, you still need to incorporate tension. We've talked about this a bit in the last section, but for characters like this, you need to look at how being direct causes tension, conflict, and complications.

Think about it.

If you were direct about everything you thought and felt, and in the way you shared that, what would happen?

A nightmare! That's what would happen.

This is one of the reasons we as human beings aren't direct in our speech in real life. (And how many children have been labeled rude or hurtful for saying exactly what they think?)

This sort of thing happens with Luna, although it's tamed down somewhat in the films. In the books, she's regularly getting in arguments with Hermione. Why? Well, in part because Luna says whatever she thinks and believes and doesn't care how Hermione responds. Her directness leads to people feeling uncomfortable, awkward, and is one of the reasons she's an outcast; translation: complications.

4. When Something is Urgent or Somewhat Unimportant

When characters are in an urgent situation, they are more likely to talk directly. It saves on time. So something like, "Look out! A cliff!" obviously works. It seems like common sense. How many times has a character thought he was about to die, and made a point to confess his guilt, love, or feelings directly, right in that moment? When it looks like your world is falling apart before your own eyes, there might not be much time to be indirect--and there may be a sense of desperation to be direct.

Worth noting is that the less we care about something, the more direct we might be. If it's unimportant to me that I ate a hamburger for lunch and you ask what I had, then I'll have no problems sharing that. If I'm supposed to be an a vegan diet, then I might try to dance around the answer.

Usually in manuscripts though, we cut way down on the unimportant--things like small talk and basic introductions often get axed, unless there is subtext within. Which then usually makes them important, anyway.

Both urgency and importance/unimportance also play into the story's pacing. So that's something to keep in mind.

So is it always bad to write direct dialogue? Nope! But just like "show, don't tell," your story will be better off if the dialogue is more indirect than not.

 Related Posts:

(Don't) Tell Me How You Really Feel
How to Punctuate Dialogue 


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