Writing Great Dialogue: Create Power Moments Rich In Subtext

writing great dialogue

Power moments in your story set up life-changing events and propel your story forward. Writing great dialogue often depends on the subtext you create in setting up these moments.

One trick of writing great dialogue is often not to write dialogue.

You want as much meaning as possible in every word uttered by your characters, which might involve setting up “power moments” and crafting dialogue rich in shows and subtext. Often the meaning is bound up not in what is said, but in what is not said.

Great dialogue reveals ulterior motives and agendas, including dastardly ones, which are often conflicting. Great dialogue can be like watching a train wreck in slow motion. Or it can open doors to magnificent possibilities.

How do you learn the art of writing great dialogue? Read great examples, listen to great examples from movies, and tune in to the real world.

Authors are psychologists

In many ways, authors need to be psychologists. One of the skills of great writers is the ability to climb into the mind of a character. Character motivation, behavior, and reaction form the heart of great stories.

This is where dialogue stems from, the insides of characters, filtered up through all they want and all that is going on around them.

Good authors make detailed studies of humans, including the ones around them. Characters in fiction are often inspired by real personalities.

Authors not only plumb the depths of the human mind, trying to understand what makes it tick, they also try to manipulate readers by evoking emotions — empathy, in particular.

Humans are never more interesting than when life-changing events are underway.

A gem of an observation

Here is “gem” of a moment that could be spun into brief but powerful dialogue because it exemplifies a “power moment,” full of subtext and shows.

The scene includes you, sitting in a restaurant. Your regular waitress is great and, as always, you plan to give her a big tip when you are done with your meal. She’s an attentive, hardworking, friendly teenager.

Diners sit at the table behind you. You only take notice when you hear your otherwise calm and collected waitress squeak out an apology after introducing herself twice to the table.

“Hi, I’m Karen and I’ll be your waitress. May I get you some water?”

Then she realizes she’s already introduced herself to the table.

“Oh, sorry! I’m a robot, just mindlessly repeating myself — I’m run off my feet,” she adds embarrassedly.

No, she’s not. The restaurant is near empty and she’s usually perfectly composed. Hmmm. What flustered her?

You turn to look and your instincts prove correct: a good-looking guy her age is sitting at the table, smiling at her.

What happens next?

A “power moment”

Any “meeting” can be charged, but in fiction, some are “classically” charged, like this iconic meeting where girl meets boy.

Her fluster is a hook that can trigger for a series of events.

Does he like her? Will he eventually like her? What might an interaction lead to? Him stringing her along? A trip to the Florida Keys? Marriage? Could she have a jealous suitor in the wings ready to put this handsome stranger into mortal peril?

Will she trip in the kitchen, break a leg, and not be able to run a marathon because of it? Will she be so happy heading home that, feeling lucky, she buys a lottery ticket and wins a million dollars?

Is this a Romeo and Juliet type situation… true love? Are these two from different warring families?

How might this meeting change their lives? That’s the definition of a power moment: it’s life-changing — or has the potential to be.

What’s so great about the dialogue?

This type of dialogue does heavy lifting because of context. Readers are already on the edge of their seats – it’s a boy-meets-girl moment – and a key plot point.

Second, we can all relate. We all remember being flustered at meeting someone we took an instant liking to – perhaps even horribly embarrassing ourselves, tripping and falling, stuttering and uttering inanities, and otherwise acting bizarrely and counter-intuitively. It makes us both cringe and feel warm inside.

Third, readers love subtext and this is packed. She never says, “I like you,” but her fluster and attentiveness says it loud and clear. Her interest is hidden but obvious.

Finally, she’s communicates through shows. She’s not telling him she finds him attractive but showing him. Next time she returns to his table, she lingers, giggles, and starts to talk about more than the menu.

Is his reaction full of subtext and shows as well? Does he blush? Or not meet her eye? Or stare intently at her? Does he drop his menu, fluster his words? Or does his response push the plot forward by propelling the trajectory towards its eventual outcome?

Share your experiences

Power moments are the stuff of fiction, whether they be weddings, funerals, fights, failures, or triumphs. They evoke strong emotions and change lives. These are the universal experiences at the core of human existence.

Good shows and subtext build believability and authenticity and minimize the number of words you need to get maximum bang out of your dialogue.

What great power moments, full of subtext and shows, have you observed or used in your writing?


The End


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