Writing Dialogue, Part 2: What Speech Reveals

Do you struggle with writing dialogue that feels both believable and profitable to your story? You’re not the only one! It doesn’t always come naturally, but it doesn’t have to be impossible. This is the second of three articles in a series on writing dialogue. Part one dealt with paying attention to how people talk, and part three will deal with strong dialogue tags and scene-setting for conversations.

This time, we’re taking a look at what speech reveals about the speaker. Granted, we already know that it shows some things about them—where they’re from, what their personality is, etc.—but did you know that what is or isn’t said can show what’s going on in the speaker’s head?

Depending on how in control of themselves the speaker is, dialogue will do one of two things:

  • Betray what’s going on inside (thinking, feeling, processing, knowing)
  • Carefully mask what’s going on inside (planned words, “right” answers, no caught-off-guard or emotions)

So what does this look like in actual conversation?

Speech that betrays:


In many conversations, whether real or fictional, what a person says shows what’s going inside of them and what their real thoughts and emotions are. Here are a few ways that happens:

  • Honest thoughts are given. Sometimes, a person says what they’re actually thinking, plain and simple. There’s no need to cover up what they’re thinking, so they don’t. This is likely to be the case in an open, relaxed, honest discussion. Other times, a person might not know or want to share what they’re really thinking. However, sometimes, it still will come out, especially if emotions are running high—when people quit guarding themselves, the brain-mouth filter is much weaker.
  • Emotions of the moment get vented. Speaking of emotions, these often come out in dialogue. Now, not everybody can clearly articulate what they’re thinking or feeling in a given moment, but what they say and how they say it can give a huge window into their emotional state, especially if they’re out of control of their emotions. Are they screaming, crying, or laughing as they speak? These are obvious clues. Other ones to think about are whether they’re using short or long sentences, using careful or rough speech, contradicting things they’ve said in the past, being sarcastic, etc. It’s not just a facial expression or tone of voice—emotions can be in the words themselves.
  • Processing happens aloud. If someone processes out loud, their listener will get a good sense of how much they do or don’t know and how confident they are or aren’t. This information will be made obvious in many situations by a pile of restarted sentences, incomplete ideas, and ums and hmms.
  • What a person actually knows comes out. When a speaker doesn’t care or notice what they’re saying, they may reveal quite a bit of information, especially if they’re chatty. Is someone a big talker? They may reveal other people’s situations without thinking about it first. Are they a big complainer? They may let more slip about themselves or their families than they realize as they talk about their lives. A distressed, distracted, or overly friendly person is the most likely to do this.

Speech that masks:


Sometimes, speech doesn’t betray what’s going on inside—it masks it. This doesn’t mean it reveals nothing, though. When a listener or reader pays attention to what isn’t being said, they can often piece together what the speaker is trying to hide. Here are a few ways this can happen:

  • Planned words are recited. Some people know that when they’re caught off guard, they’ll give away their true thoughts or knowledge. To avoid this, they carefully plan what they’re going to say ahead of time. When the actual conversation happens, they will have noticeably smooth answers to questions, even difficult ones, and they may try to control the conversation to keep it to their script—which, incidentally, nearly always sounds like a script.
  • Trite, “right” answers are given. Sometimes, a person is too tired, stubborn, wary, private, or disengaged to invest deeply in a conversation. Their answers will be noticeably too easy, and there won’t be a lot of thought stated. In real life, a listener may need to pay attention to emotional signals to figure out why this is. In fiction, those same clues ought to be present—even imaginary people should only give easy answers if they’re trying to!
  • Emotions are missing. Similar to trying to give the easy or “right” answer is trying to avoid giving the real This can especially be seen when emotions are missing. Is the speaker answering carefully, not showing how they’re feeling? The listener can figure out what emotions they might be hiding by comparing the conversation topic to what they know of the speaker. What’s missing? If someone cares enough to hide their emotions, those hidden emotions are likely significant to themselves or others.
  • Emotions are faked. Sometimes, people go a step farther than hiding their emotions: they replace them with false emotions. They do this to try to appear the way they think they should appear, or perhaps to cover up feelings they don’t want to admit to having. Fake emotions are usually exaggerated or “off,” suggesting that something quite the opposite of those overplayed displays is actually true.

What about a mix?

People are rarely completely out of control or completely in control of themselves and their tongues. This results in speech that does a mix of betraying and masking. As a human being, understand this about yourself and others; it will make the conversations you join seem more understandable and human. As a writer, remember the same thing and make sure it’s true of your characters. Keep the following situations in mind as you’re writing dialogue:

  • People try to stay controlled but slip up a bit.
  • One sentence is started, but another finished.
  • The speaker’s face says one thing, but their words say another.
  • Fake emotions are often obviously faked.
  • The speaker purposely rants and steams but keeps their actual thoughts private.
  • The speaker tries to come up with the right answer but still stumbles through their response.
  • People sometimes don’t know what to say and say nothing at all.

Knowing how speech can betray or mask what’s going on inside the speaker is a powerful tool for all people, but especially fiction writers. Remember, everything your characters say is going to do one or the other, if not both. Carefully study what speech reveals, and then copy it in your dialogue. Your story and characters will be all the stronger for it.

Come back again for part three later this month!


This entry was posted in Fiction Writing Tips and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *