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Using Dialogue to Show, Not Tell

Dialogue is one of the key tools writers use to show, not tell what is happening in their stories. For example, have you ever have a conversation that danced around the real topic you were talking about? Usually they happen when people are being sneaky, or if they’re having a fight. These conversations can show a lot about the people talking, and their relationship, if you’re able to pick up on the subtext of what’s being said.  

Recently, in one of my classes we were asked to write a conversation about something, but have it actually be about something else. The challenge was to show what the characters were arguing about without them saying it explicitly or telling what it is in the narration.

 Below is my submission for the assignment, though I’ve edited it a bit. In my next post, I’ll give a breakdown of my choices regarding dialogue and how they impacted the scene.

 Now, can you tell what’s really going on between these characters?

Quiet: A Short Story

Morris dropped into the seat and yanked the door closed. “Can you believe it?” he said looking at Mary as she buckled up next to him. The leather seats burned the backs of her legs through her sheer fabric skirt and nylons.

“I don’t know. It seems really odd. It’s not a mistake I’d expect them to make,” she said taking a deep breath of hot sticky air. She felt the rumble of the engine and adjusted the air vents to blow the cool air at her legs, then glanced over at him while he backed out. “What did they say they were going to do about it?”

“They’ll add it to my next paycheck. But I’m so pissed they took it out at all.” He navigated through the parking lot, merged onto the road and pulled up to the red light.

Click. Click. Click. The noise stopped as he finished the left turn to the highway onramp.  The hybrid engine noise reduced to a hum when he put on cruise control. She felt him glance at her in the silence, but she couldn’t speak. It just doesn’t make sense, she thought.

“I’m going to get it back Mary, I promise.” His voice pierced her thoughts.

“It doesn’t make sense. You said the child support payments would go down, but they went up instead. They can’t just do that willy-nilly. Are you sure that’s what they told you in court? Do you have the papers yet?”

“No… they said it would take a few more weeks to have them copied and mailed. And yes, I’m sure. It’s a mix up. I’m not paying that witch any more than I have to.”

“You said before it’d be here this week. If the paperwork isn’t done, then why did they take more out of your paycheck? I just don’t understand. If what you’re saying is true-”

“It is.”

“Then it never should have happened. And I have bills already scheduled to be paid with that money. This isn’t good. Something might bounce,” Mary said, shifting in her seat and crossing her arms.

“Don’t worry. I’ll fix it.”

“Can’t you get something in writing from them? Something that says they made the mistake?”

“You know, I’ll ask them for it next time I see them.”

“How about tomorrow?

“Tomorrow?”

“Yes, tomorrow. First thing. I’ll go with you.” She jerked forward, the seat belt digging into her neck and hips as he narrowly avoided hitting the car in front of him. Ahead, cars creeped slowly along, brake lights flashing in irregular patterns.

“That was close,” he said letting out a whistle.

“Yes, it was.”

“Look, I’ve got a meeting first thing. I promise I’ll take care of it.”

“With who?” she said, watching his eyes.

“Uh, John, and I think George will be there. It’s about setting up the new system in the lab.” She nodded and looked out the window, past the cars crawling along next to them, at the spot where the tops of the green trees met the grey sky.

“Really.”

“It just doesn’t make sense,” she said, not turning to look at him.

“I know, but it’s true.”

If only, she thought.

show not tell dialogue

Did you guess?

So, is the argument about unexpected child support payments? Yes, and no. The money is just a cover, the current vehicle, that Mary is using to talk around her lack of trust in Morris. Does Morris understand that? I don’t know. He’s very insistent in saying he’s telling the truth, which makes me think he does, but I’m not sure he grasps the depth of her concern.

How did the dialogue show, not tell, that deeper conversation? 

I’d love to hear your opinions in the comments!

Be sure to come back for my next post where I’ll be discussing the different types of dialogue and how they affect your story and characters.

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