“Hey Susan. Nice weather we’re having today, aren’t we?”

“Yes Laura, it’s just lovely. The sun is really shining.”

“How is Mack doing these days? Any better?”

“He has his good days and his bad days. It’s just too bad he has to miss this sunshine.”

Wow. Exciting stuff. I am just on the edge of my seat here dying to find out more about– Nope. You and I both know that interchange was an absolute bore-fest. I nearly fell asleep writing it.

But the dialogue gave us what we needed to know about Laura and Susan’s feelings. It introduced some new characters. It gave us a sense of the setting. So why did this scene absolutely murder potential character growth? And why did it bore us readers to tears?

Because it’s on-the-nose dialogue.

Susan gave Laura direct answers to her questions. No qualms there. Nothing unordinary. Everything is status quo.

There is no reason to suspect underlying problems, or assume these characters are anything but acquaintances. Nothing is hinted at or suggested. There are no layers. This is a shallow conversation.

Now, let’s re-read that example, but this time, let’s switch up the dialogue a bit:

“What wonderful weather we’re having today, Susan.”

“Mack’s getting worse, isn’t he, Laura?”

“It’s been so long since I’ve felt the sun on my skin.”

“You can’t give up now, Laura. I know it’s painful, but there’s still time for him.”

Who is Mack? Is he sick? Is he an addict? Perhaps he’s a relative? A spouse? What sort of loss will this be to Laura if he gets worse? What does Laura mean to Mack? Laura hasn’t been outside in a while, but how long exactly? Susan seems to know Laura pretty well. They must be friends. Perhaps they’ve been friends for years.  

Do you see what’s happened here? Because Susan replied to Laura with something completely unexpected, the doors to the scene were thrown wide open. And because Laura refused to directly answer her question, a new layer of tension and drama is added to the scene.

The reader discovers layers of the characters lives hidden within the dialogue.

In our own lives, it’s not often that we respond directly to someone according to what they’ve said to us. Often we avoid saying absolute truth. We avoid revealing our true selves. We judge the circumstance, our thoughts or feelings take the reins, and what we say is a result of how the situation has affected us. In this way, we send underlying messages to who we interact with, whether we realize it or not.

With our characters it’s the same. As writers, we tend to forget the amount of power dialogue has. It reaches depths narration couldn’t possibly explore. And that’s because dialogue reveals the thoughts, the emotions, the personality type, and the intentions of the character from its most organic source: the character itself.

Indirect dialogue, instead of predictable patterns, leaves your reader constantly intrigued. They’re reading far deeper into the scene than what’s merely written on the page. The scene, the characters- they truly come alive. They become real to your reader.

With indirect dialogue, your characters’ personality types are being subconsciously grasped by the reader. 

Let’s go back to Susan and Laura’s conversation. Not once did I mention that Laura is a private person. Nor did I say that Laura wants to ignore reality. But you gathered her personality type all on your own simply from the way she talked, what she said, and how she said it. Likewise you figured out that Susan is perceptive. You gathered that Susan wants to be involved in Laura’s life. Susan doesn’t appreciate chit chat. You understood all of that on your own simply from exploring the layers hidden within the dialogue.

I know you’re getting the point here.

 See, with the first example, we garnered nothing about Laura and Susan’s lives and personalities. We use dialogue as a way to show and not tell. And in my personal opinion, it is one of the most powerful ways to show and not tell in your story. Without us telling the reader “Susan is a cut-to-the-chase type of gal”, the reader has already come to that conclusion on their own because of the dialogue. No added narration necessary. 

So is narration just a crutch?

Narration certainly has its place even in scenes of dialogue. Proper dashes of narration can be like the spice added to the boiling pot of dialogue soup. But if you’re relying too heavily on narration in a scene of dialogue, then you must reconsider the strength of your dialogue.

Let’s take that scene one last time, and this time we will see how proper dashes of narration can add even more layers to our scene:

“What wonderful weather we’re having today, Susan.”

“Mack’s getting worse, isn’t he, Laura?”

Laura took a deep breath. Lavender danced through the spring air. It had been one year to the day. Tears burned Laura’s eyes. “It’s been so long since I’ve felt the sun on my skin.”

Susan’s pale, trembling arms idly grasped onto one other. “You can’t give up now, Laura. I know it’s painful, but there’s still time for him.”

With the dash of narrative there are countless new layers the reader is grasping even still.

Lavender, it brings back memories for Laura. Painful memories? Memories of better days? I understand that feeling. So it’s been a year since this all went down. But what is it the anniversary of, exactly? Perhaps the day she met Mack? Or the day he was diagnosed? Or the day he checked into rehab?

Likewise you grasped that Susan is not as confident as she sounds. Pale, trembling arms- she’s nervous, perhaps afraid. She’s anxious, to say the least. She can see the reality of the situation and it’s getting to her. But she puts on a strong face and gives encouragement to her friend. Susan is a good friend.

See how proper dashes of narration can add so much more depth to your novel and drama to your scenes? We become further invested in the story simply by these small notes of narration. Narration enhances what is being said, it suggests underlying issues and emotions. In small doses, narration can be a powerful tool to enhance scenes with dialogue. When you use narration alongside dialogue, then show as much as you can through it. Reveal layers within moments. Instead of merely stating a character’s feelings, paint it in the scene.

Use the variety of color dialogue offers. Don’t stress if you find that you’ve used on-the-nose dialogue in your novel. For some scenes you may find that on-the-nose dialogue is necessary. You be the judge. Go through your novel and see if there are scenes that could be enhanced if you scrapped on-the-nose dialogue. See if there are ways you could go deeper with your characters simply by altering how they’re talking to one another. And most importantly: take your time. Great novels don’t happen overnight.

Have questions or comments? Share your thoughts below, I’d love to hear from you!

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