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Great Dialogue is the Art of the Unsaid


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I almost titled this post “What We Talk about When We Talk about Talking,” but it looked bad as a header.

As a not-professional editor who nonetheless gets to edit my friends’ writing, one of the most common questions I get is, “Does the dialogue sound natural?”

And often, because my friends are talented, the answer is most definitely “yes.”

But is “natural” really the highest form of dialogue? We all want our dialogue to sound natural, as opposed to stilted, but dialogue can sound natural and still be missing that extra spark that takes it from “good dialogue” to “oh my god, Becky, I will remember this line for the rest of my days” dialogue.

As I looked up some online sources on writing good dialogue that I could share with my friends, I found that many of them repeated the same advice. Most of the focus was on what characters should say, or else how they should say it: dialogue must move the plot forward, dialogue must reveal something about the relationship between characters, dialogue should sound natural but not too natural, dialogue should be unique to characters’ backgrounds, don’t pad your dialogue with unnecessary small talk, avoid greetings and soliloquies and goodbyes, have characters be indirect.

These are great pieces of advice, but even if you follow them to the letter, your dialogue still may come out sounding wooden.

I’d like to offer a third way to look at dialogue, and ironically, it’s through what isn’t said.

“But Kelsey,” you say, “that sounds like ‘show, don’t tell,’ which is the oldest advice in the book.”

Yes. I mean, it is basically that, but “show, don’t tell” was usually framed around character actions, not dialogue: e.g., “Sally was mad” versus “Sally stomped to her room and slammed the door.” Similarly, there is plenty of advice out there that recommends having characters be indirect in their speech (one of my favorite tactics), but that’s not what I mean here, either.

The classic example of the art of the unsaid—and it’s a classic for a reason—is Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.” In this story, the topic of discussion between the man and woman is never made explicit; readers must complete the story by insinuating the couple’s meaning from what they say and how they speak. But if we take our analysis even further, we can see that part of what makes this story so compelling is not just because of what was left unsaid, but how it was left unsaid.

Take this passage, for example:

“Well,” the man said, “if you don’t want to you don’t have to. I wouldn’t have you do it if you didn’t want to. But I know it’s perfectly simple.”

“And you really want to?”

“I think it’s the best thing to do. But I don’t want you to do it if you really don’t want to.”

“And if I do it you’ll be happy and things will be like they were and you’ll love me?”

“I love you now. You know I love you.”

“I know. But if I do it, then it will be nice again if I say things are like white elephants, and you’ll like it?”

“I’ll love it. I love it now but I just can’t think about it. You know how I get when I worry.”

“If I do it you won’t ever worry?”

“I won’t worry about that because it’s perfectly simple.”

 

Aloud, the man says, “But I don’t want you to do it [spoiler alert for a nearly century-old story: they are talking about her having an abortion] if you really don’t want to.”

But when the woman asks, “And if I do it you’ll be happy and things will be like they were and you’ll love me?” he replies, “I love you now. You know I love you.”

His non-answer tells us everything we need to know about the man’s true feelings. First, by simply avoiding any acknowledgement of the woman’s first two questions—“you’ll be happy and things will be like they were”—we, the audience, can infer that he is not comfortable promising those things because he does not believe them. Had he outright lied to her, this would be a different story: they likely would not be having this conversation at all, because the man would have told her what she wanted to hear in order to get what he wants.

Second, his reply to her third question—“and you’ll love me?”—is equally a non-answer. He replies in the present tense, while she is looking for reassurance about the future. Again, rather than being forthright and telling her that he cannot make promises about the future, he avoids and redirects the conversation.

While the man has said explicitly that he thinks having an abortion is the best choice, he still claims to be willing to go along with his companion’s wishes. But from just these few lines of dialogue, we can infer that the man may not be as flexible as he claims. If he cannot even honestly answer questions about the couple’s future if they have the abortion as he wishes, what makes us think that he would accept his partner’s choice to give birth?

Another example of excellent use of the unsaid in dialogue is from Téa Obreht’s novel The Tiger’s Wife. In this passage, the narrator, Natalia, has come to pick up her late grandfather’s belongings from a remote clinic, and the only person who can let her in is the neighboring bartender:

The barman reappeared with a pale blue plastic bag under his right arm. I watched him lock the stairwell door and come over to me. Goose bumps paled the flesh of his arm.

“This it?” he asked me. The bag was folded, stapled closed.

“I don’t know.” I stood up.

He turned the bag over and looked at the label. “Stefanović?”

I reached for the bag, but it was so cold it fell out of my hands. Bad arm dangling, the barman stooped to pick it up, and when he held it out to me, I opened my backpack for him and he folded it inside.

He watched me zip up the backpack. “All I know is, he collapsed,” the barman finally said.

“Where?”

“Outside the bar. A couple of nights after they brought those kids in. Before they died.”

“Were the nurses here? Did they take long to help him?”

The barman shook his head. “Not long,” he said. “Not long. They thought maybe he was drunk, at first. But I told them no. I told them he only ordered water.”

“Water? Was he alone?”

The barman wiped the sweat that had congealed on his temples in a grainy film. “I couldn’t say. Think so.”

“A tall man,” I said. “With glasses, and a hat and coat. You don’t remember him sitting with anyone at all?”

“No.”

“With a young man, maybe?”

He shook his head.

“They would have been arguing,” I said.

“This is a veterans’ slum, what do you think people do all day?”

In the freezer below us, something shifted with a hollow clang.

 

This passage follows all the advice above for what and how characters should speak. But what makes this dialogue stand out is the subtext underneath the words. Natalia doesn’t say, “You see, I’m suspicious of the suddenness of my grandfather’s death.” She asks questions about the nurses and if her grandfather was seen with anyone. The more questions she asks, the less the barman says. Obreht indicates Natalia’s frustration with the barman’s closed-off nature by reducing the action and dialogue tags until there is nothing but a brief exchange of dialogue (“You don’t remember him sitting with anyone at all?”/“No.”/“With a young man, maybe?” He shook his head. “They would have been arguing,” I said.).

Finally, the barman ends her probing with an irritable rhetorical question, signaling to Natalia that he has had enough, and is ending the conversation. But he doesn’t say, “That’s enough. I’m tired of your questions, and I’m ending this conversation.” There is no “he said irritably,” or even an action tag to show the barman’s irritation, like a sigh or a hand on his hip. Based on the exchange up to this point, readers can intuit that the barman’s “what do you think people do all day?” is his way of telling Natalia that she’s pushed him too far.

I think the hardest thing for many authors in writing dialogue is trusting the reader to intuit meaning from the unspoken. It’s an understandable block; we’re writing because we have something to say, and we want to be sure readers understand us. But part of what makes the above passages so emotionally powerful is that to understand them, the readers must be fully immersed in the page, able to draw out meaning just as we do in real life. And—speaking from experience—when readers are able to pick up on subtext, it feels satisfying as hell: like you’re having a secret, one-on-one conversation with the author.

So the next time you’re writing dialogue, ask yourself if there are emotions that you can bury into subtext (ands this is the only time I will tell you it’s okay to bury emotions), and let your readers bring their pickaxes. They’ll probably thank you for it later.

WU readers, who are your favorite authors of dialogue? Do you love, hate, love to hate, or have a love/hate relationship with writing dialogue yourself?

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