I’ve been thinking about dialogue a lot this year. Particularly, I’ve been interested in dialogue where characters don’t say what they mean. In Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern, Stern notes,
“Advice about dialogue generally starts with discussing what your characters say. It might be better to start off with what your characters don’t say and the way they don’t….the more intense the feelings, the more likely people are to say the opposite of what they really mean. If you want to keep a high level of tension, keep the dialogue evasive, filled with suppressed information and unstated emotion.”
He also says that how a character sits, stands, fidgets, pauses, or adverts eyes can be as important as his or her words.Three examples of narratives that follow Stern’s advice are The Office, The Hunger Games, and The Lord of the Rings.
Here are some clips to illustrate. The first video takes place when Michael Scott, one of the main characters of The Office, leaves Dunder Mifflin. Watch how Jim avoids (and gets Michael to avoid) saying what they actually think and feel. The second video is very short, but you can clearly tell through Ryan’s tone and facial expression that his words are an understatement of what he actually thinks.
Often The Office plays with the gap between what characters say and actually think for humor.
For The Hunger Games I couldn’t find the clip I wanted, but it’s the scene at the starting where Katniss and Gale are talking in the forest. In the book, Gale says “We could do it, you know…Leave the district. Run off. Live in the woods. You and I, we could make it.” In the same conversation, when Katniss says she never wants to have kids, Gales says, “I might. If I didn’t live here.” And later, Gale gets frustrated and snaps at Katniss.
What Gale really wants is to be in a relationship with Katniss, but he can’t say it straight out. And Katniss, who never intends to live a lifestyle that includes a significant other, doesn’t catch on. Gale’s real frustration lies in the fact that Katniss doesn’t pick up on what he’s getting at. That’s why he snaps back at her.
And for my last example, I have the very last scene of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Here is the dialogue between Frodo and Sam.
Sam: I wonder if we’ll ever be put into songs or tales.
Frodo: [turns around] What?
Sam: I wonder if people will ever say, ‘Let’s hear about Frodo and the Ring.’ And they’ll say ‘Yes, that’s one of my favorite stories. Frodo was really courageous, wasn’t he, Dad?’ ‘Yes, my boy, the most famousest of hobbits. And that’s saying a lot.’
Frodo: [continue walking] You’ve left out one of the chief characters – Samwise the Brave. I want to hear more about Sam.
[stops and turns to Sam]
Frodo: Frodo wouldn’t have got far without Sam.
Sam: Now Mr. Frodo, you shouldn’t make fun; I was being serious.
Frodo: So was I.
In this example, Frodo expresses how much Sam means to him, but indirectly. It’s clear Frodo really values Sam, but instead of telling Sam something sappy, he works it into their conversation. And Frodo takes no chances that Sam will misunderstand him; he makes sure to say “So was I.”
So you can play with the gap between what characters say and actually think to add humor or tension. Sometimes playing with that gap creates moments even more powerful than situations where characters speak their minds. If Michael and Jim really just spoke what they meant, the scene wouldn’t have been as significant. Same goes for Frodo and Sam. The fact that they withhold their words shows how much those words mean to them.
Do you have moments where your characters don’t say what they mean? When do you think it’s best to be most indirect? Do you have any other examples for us?