Dealing With Dialogue: What Your Characters Are Really Trying to Say

The words your characters use are powerful tools. Can you wield them to maximum effect? Learn how to up your dialogue game in the Subtleties of Dialogue series.

We’re experts at communicating things without explicitly saying them. We do it naturally—it’s second-nature. The problem can come when trying to replicate that in dialogue.

The previous post, What Are Your Characters Trying to Say?, focused on the way people agree and disagree with others and how the words they use can reveal what they truly think. Now let’s apply those concepts to our fiction.

Speech in fiction needs to be more streamlined than natural speech. Readers don’t care about the false starts and ‘um’s and ‘uh’s of everyday talk—they just want to get to the meat of the conversation.

Just because writers strip away the messiness of real speech doesn’t mean we have to do away with all its qualities, though. A little messiness—for example, through dancing around a subject—can reveal details about characters’ minds and their relationships with others.

Typical vs. Atypical Responses

Does your character give typical, socially expected responses in conversation or atypical, socially unaccepted ones? The way in which they agree or disagree with someone can reveal oodles of information about who they are.

To recap briefly:


When expressing agreement, the typical response is to answer immediately in a straightforward manner if we enthusiastically agree with someone, and to answer using weaker expressions when we’re less enthusiastic or only agreeing to be polite.

An atypical response might be to answer in a meandering or subdued way when we are enthusiastic about what someone’s said. What could be inferred if we reply in this way? Maybe that we’re trying to hide our enthusiasm, or that we’re nervous or uncomfortable with the person we’re speaking to?


When expressing disagreement, the typical, polite response is to answer after a delay, in a roundabout manner. We might pretend that we don’t understand or didn’t hear, use dispreference markers (e.g., ‘Well…’), or soften our rejections with phrases such as ‘I don’t think I can…’ rather than a blunt ‘No.’ We can also try to justify our disagreement so as not to appear confrontational, or use token agreements (e.g., ‘Yes, but…’) to avoid a direct disagreement.

If we were to respond in an atypical or impolite way, we could just disagree bluntly, immediately after being asked, without offering any reason for our reaction. What would that convey to whoever we’re speaking to? That we’re very against what they’re saying, that we don’t like them, or that we don’t care for social conventions? Or maybe we’re in a hurry and don’t have time to dance around the subject?


When someone puts themselves down through a self-deprecating comment, the socially expected response is to disagree with them in a straightforward, speedy manner or to agree with them in a roundabout, delayed way, with dispreference markers and minimisation of the negative aspects (basically, the same way we would disagree with a normal comment).

What if we reacted to a self-deprecating remark in a socially frowned-upon way—for example, through agreeing with their belittling comment directly or disagreeing in a hesitant, ambiguous way? What message would that give to those listening?

Understanding real conversation involves lots of reading between the lines and making inferences about other people’s mental states from what they’ve said. Dialogue that requires this too not only allows you to show aspects of a character’s personality rather than tell the reader them, it’s also much more satisfying and engaging for readers.

What to Leave Out and When

There’s a reason dialogue isn’t a direct replication of natural speech—it would be boring or frustrating for readers. Just as we leave out the unremarkable false starts, corrections and stutters of normal conversation, we shouldn’t replicate every feature of agreement or disagreement. The trick is picking out the right features for the current scene and character.

In the examples of roundabout responses, there are several components that you could include, like pauses, dispreference markers (e.g., ‘Well…’), justifications and token agreements. Minimise the risk of boring your readers and overdoing it through picking only some of these features in some circumstances. For example, a pause alone can be very telling; it may not need the other features to accompany it.

Mix and match the components of a roundabout response to create variety in your characters’ dialogue. If they hesitate before replying at one point in a conversation, use a different indirect method, such as a token agreement, later.

Though a roundabout response may be appropriate for your character, it may not be for your scene. Keep long, meandering answers to a minimum in tense or fast-paced scenes. If your character does need to use a roundabout method, consider having another character interrupt them to keep the pace up and increase the sense of urgency.

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