Tuesday, July 4, 2023

What To Leave Out Of the Dialog You Write

by PeggySue Wells @PeggySueWells

When people speak to one another, we often say one thing while meaning something completely different. In other words, we are adept at not meaning what we say, and not saying what we mean. 

When possible, duplicate this situation in writing your dialog. In this segment of a conversation between a teenager and his mother from Chasing Sunrise, the spoken words are different from what is truly being communicated. Yet both understand the underlying topic.

The second week, the commander handed Michael’s application form back to him. “Need your dad’s signature.” 

Michael brought home the forms and dropped them on his bedroom dresser. The third week, when his mom hurried everyone through a spaghetti and green bean dinner so they could make the meeting, he finally said he wasn’t going.

“Why not?”

“Just not.”

“You wanna be in this or not?”

“I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“Something about the forms.”

She picked up his empty plate, stacked it on top of hers, and carried them to the kitchen. “Get them.” 

It took his mother a nanosecond to see the problem. She picked up an ink pen and boldly signed her name where a father’s signature was required. “That should take care of things.” She handed him the completed form. “Now let’s go.”

Similarly, when Michael and his battle buddy have this conversation, while it appears they are talking about the girl they met that evening, a closer look reveals they are really thinking about Michael’s sister who he had not been able to protect from harm. 

Outside under the stars Michael could hear strains of the band’s attempt to play Elvis’ All Shook Up. He fished in his pocket and pulled out the money that was there. Reaching for the girl’s hand, he pressed the bills into her palm. “Go home,” he told her kindly. “Find another job.”

She looked from him to the bar. Bryce still filled the doorway, his back to Michael and the girl. Her eyes met Michael’s again and he saw the same fear there he had seen in the little bird’s. 

He indicated the bills in her hand. “Should be enough until you find something better.”

She counted the money in her hand. When she looked at him again, there was hope in her eyes where fear had been a moment ago.

“Now go.” Michael spoke gently. 

She gripped the bills tightly and stuffed them inside the front of her dress. As Bryce stepped backwards out of the doorway, the girl turned and fled.

Standing beside Michael, Bryce stuffed his hands in his pockets. “Mama-san was curious about what was happening with her girl.” The two watched the girl disappear into the night.


“I gave her some money for her trouble.”

Michael grunted and turned toward the hotel. Bryce fell into step beside him. They were nearly back to their hotel when Bryce finally broke the silence. “You okay?” 

“She probably wasn’t any older than Marissa.”

“Probably not.”

“She should be playing with dolls.”

“Or picking on her older brother’s best friend.”

Michael smiled, remembering the good-natured pranks his sisters used to do to pester good-natured Bryce. “Remember that first snow when April—”


“And the time you slept over and Marissa—”

“Don’t remind me.”

They walked on, each lost in his own thoughts. Stopping outside the hotel, Michael asked, “Think she’ll do something better with her life?”

Bryce shrugged. “Well, I’d say that’s up to her.” He slapped Michael on the back. “But you gave her the option.”

When possible, layer your dialog with multiple meanings. This can be done with symbolism, hints, word selection, body movement, and references. Trust your reader to be savvy enough to understand or to put the pieces together later in the story.

When can you give your reader several messages at the same time using the same technique we often use in daily dialog with those around us? 


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Tropical island votary and history buff, PeggySue Wells parasails, skydives, snorkels, scuba dives, and has taken (but not passed) pilot training. Writing from the 100-Acre Wood in Indiana, Wells is the bestselling author of thirty books including The Slave Across the Street, Slavery in the Land of the Free, Bonding With Your Child Through Boundaries, Homeless for the Holidays, Chasing Sunrise, and The Ten Best Decisions A Single Mom Can Make. Founder of SingleMomCircle.com, PeggySue is named for the Buddy Holly song with the great drumbeat. At school author visits, she teaches students the secrets to writing and speaks at events and conferences. Connect with her at www.PeggySueWells.com, on Facebook at PeggySue Wells, and LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/peggysuewells


  1. Really enjoyed reading this. Never really had given this aspect much thought but see the importance. Thanks for posting it. A fascinating way to make the story more real. JW in SC

  2. Thank you, JW. Once we begin listening, a great deal of our words say one thing while layered with deeper meanings. When writers weave insinuations into the dialog, it is a treat for the reader.

  3. It's the layers of meaning that makes fiction more powerful at truth-telling than most non-fiction. Great exposition of this, and thanks for demonstrating how it's done.