One important aspect of compelling storytelling is putting meaningful words in the mouths of your characters, also known as dialogue by some professionals. Good dialogue conveys what the characters say to each other with purpose and direction, in addition to non-verbal communication, and even small talk if conveyed correctly. But today we’re talking about a more subtle level of character interaction much deeper than meaningful words and actions: the lack thereof.
It’s What You Don’t Say That Matters
Dialogue may move the plot forward and reveal who the characters are through their communication style and vocabulary, but sometimes it’s what they do not say that creates the most interesting of conflicts. When characters hold secrets from each other, how they feel about those secrets cause their interactions to be strained because withholding information from either their loved ones, or enemies who could use the secret against them, can change their relationships forever.
The most common feeling accompanied by a secret is shame because as human we are fundamentally flawed, and knowing this we strive to be better than we are, thus having a tough time admitting or even acknowledging having any flaws. After all, it’s these flaws and mistakes we make that degrade our self perception in the eyes of our better potential selves, and how we’re perceived by others.
Our self image is important to us because having an identity is comforting, and identifying ourselves as good virtuous people is how we navigate the strange and difficult canals of life. Rocky waters are just part of life, but secrets can be deadly waves that drown us all.
But amidst all the watery turmoil we may face in our lives, perhaps learning how to weather the storm is how we come to discover strong we truly are, assuming we have the strength to survive.
So if anyone ever comes close to exposing our secrets and insecurities, whether they mean to or not, it can cause us to becoming defensive and deflect the topic. Unless you willingly go to therapy to talk about your problems and share your secrets, chances are, you would much rather keep your secrets to yourself and not let anybody catch wind of them.
You could either be protecting others from something you perceive as dangerous to them, or something that is dangerous to your public and/or personal perception. A secret that if word got out could potentially hurt several others, or hurt your ability to deserve any trust from others.
A Happy Accident For a Set Up
Let’s take Bob, for instance, who gets so drunk at his best friend’s bachelor party that he ends up cheating on his wife with the “hired entertainment.”
(I’m talking about a stripper, of course, not a party clown. Though hiring a party clown instead of a stripper would make for a good best man prank. Even better if the party clown turns out to be the stripper’s character gimmick, but anyways! Let’s actually roll with that for this example.)
Imagine how awkward it will be for Bob to wake up to his wife Jane the next morning, knowing what he had just done the night prior. She could ask how the bachelor party was and he could admit that he got down and dirty with a clown stripper named Trixie, but where would the drama be in that?
No, instead, he would do anything to avoid the topic because of the guilt eating him up inside. He’s questioning if he’s a horrible husband and if the drinks were laced with something strong because there’s no way he could have cheated on Jane. Maybe it was a drug induced hallucination? Or maybe the Clown Stripper took advantage of him? In either case he perceives himself as weak and unworthy to called himself a married man.
Bob and the Clown Stripper
“How was the party?” Jane asks.
“F-fine,” Bob stammers. He swiftly sits up in bed, causing his head to spin from the heavy hangover induced from one too many whiskey shots and using beer and wine as chasers.
“Hey, be careful.” Jane caresses Bob’s bed head from behind him and smooths out his hair. “Just fine? But you spent weeks setting up this prank. Did it back fire? Did Jim end up hating it?”
Thoughts of last night’s shenanigans flood Bob’s memories, and the fact that they are hazy is not the part that troubles him. It is the image of Trixie sitting on his lap and possibly kissing his neck, which is where the dirty deed may have began. He gasps and snaps out of the memory and tugs at his black polo shirt’s collar to see traces of white make up and cherry red lipstick.
Bob leaps out of bed, unbuttons his shirt and rushes to take it off to hide any evidence of his misdoings from Jane. He immediately regrets it because it comes off as suspicious.
“Thank God because you reek,” Jane says. “I was going to take your shirt off for you when you climbed into bed last night, but I didn’t want to wake you.”
Jane knows how much of a light sleeper Bob is, even when he’s punched out drunk. Bob feels ever guiltier considering how much Jane knows and loves him so much. Despite his shirt being off, he begins to sweat.
“Bob?” She asks, but he doesn’t hear her. He feels guilty considering how she had to sleep next to him stinking of alcohol.
“Sorry,” Bob says steadying himself against the dresser. “I am so sorry, Jane, I really am. And thanks.”
“It’s no big deal. Everything okay?” Jane shuffles over to the edge of the bed. “You should lie down, I’ll go make you some breakfast.”
“It’s okay,” Bob says, feeling undeserving of her affection.
Jane goes to pick up Bob’s shirt off the floor, and he tries to grab for it, but grabs for air instead. As she heads to the hamper, he hopes that she just tosses it in so he can grab it and wash off Trixie’s make up off his shirt while Jane cooks breakfast. Just as Bob is about to let out a sigh of relief when Jane takes the lid off the hamper, she pauses and turns around clearly staring at the clown’s make up smeared on Bob’s shirt.
“Bob?” Jane asks.
“It’s not what it looks like,” he says.
“Did you cheat on me with a clown stripper?” Jane giggles.
“N-no, of course not.”
“Gosh, I sure hope she took her foam nose off before you whisked her off to the circus.”
Bob is frozen, slowly realizing that Jane is obviously joking, but doesn’t know how to shake off his guilt exuding demeanour. Jane’s grin slowly fades into a questioning frown and Bob licks his lips after realizing how dry his mouth has become from the laboured breathing.
Less is More
As you can see from my morbid example that less is more. The dialogue is for the most part short with a few actions, thoughts, and exposition to provide context to why the seemingly innocuous conversation between Bob and Jane is more tense that it would seem at face value.
Though when it comes to a character trying to hide a secret from another, they don’t always have to be sparse for words. They could even over compensate by spinning lies rather than simply avoiding the truth. Bob doesn’t have to say anything, his entire avoidant responses imply that he’s hiding something, but poor Jane is non-the-wiser, even when she jokingly asks if he cheated on her with a clown stripper.
On top of hiding the truth from Jane, Bob apologized profusely for something his wife didn’t take as that big of a deal when it came to coming home drunk and falling asleep reeking of alcohol. That itself is a subtle tell that the reader could pick up on to gauge Bob’s guilt over possibly betraying his loving trusting wife.
It is implied that cheating is unusual and unexpected of Bob, and that he and Jane have a solid marriage with how she’s joking around with him with the idea of…well…the possible truth of what happened. I will leave it up to interpretation whether he actually she cheated on her, and whether she figured it out after where the examples off from.
That is it for today’s Workshop Wednesday! I hope this helps you make good use of a valuable tension building tool.
What are your favourite unspoken words from fiction?
Do you have any thoughts, questions, and criticisms about this post?
Was the example too out of left field and not very family friendly when it could have been?
Whatever the case, let me know in the comments below!