Dialogue FAIL? Diagnose the Motive

Sometimes dialogue doesn’t work, but why does it fail?

A reader can become confused or skeptical because of any number of issues with the writing, but I think questions in dialogue are the most common problem area.  This is probably as true in real-life dialogue as it is in fiction.

Questions are more about the motive than the one-dimensional wording.  Unless the author points the reader in the right direction, it’s easy to take a wrong turn.  “Huh?  Why did he say that?”

About motive:  We humans tend to be coy, manipulative, and cautious when interacting with others.  We don’t always say what we mean, or mean what we say.

I could ask you a question because:

1.  I honestly don’t know the answer, and I want you to tell me.

     Me:  “But without my lucky blowtorch, how will we kill the zombies?”

     You:  “Never fear, I brought lighter fluid.”

2.  I think I know the answer, but I want to know what you think it is.

     Me:  “All right, fine.  But who will strike the match?”

     You:  “You, of course.  I only have one arm, remember?”

3.  I know the answer, and I know you know the answer, but I want to see if you will say it, and how.  I intend to watch your body language for more information.

     Me:  “But won’t I have to get close to the zombies in order to throw the match once it’s lit?”

     You:  (shifting your feet, eyes averted) “You can run pretty fast.  And the zombies should be on fire by then.”

4.  We both know the answer and both know the other knows it, but I’m asking it to make a point, to make you admit we agree on the truth.  I’m probably trying to win an argument.

     Me:  “Fair enough.  But if you’re spraying the lighter fluid, and I’m striking the match,      who will distract the zombies while we do all that?”

     You:  (Silent, one-handedly scratching behind the antennae of your giant pet cockroach named Fido.)

     Fido:  “Screech?”

*  Yes, I am aware there is debate among aficionados as to whether or not fire kills zombies.  Touché.

*  And for those concerned I might now aspire to write a zombie thriller, let me put your mind at ease: I’ll leave it to the pros.

About questions in dialogue: The reader has to assume the motive is #1 (I don’t know the answer and I want you to tell me), unless the author gives the necessary clues that it’s motive number 2, 3 or 4.  Without the visual or audial cues of a live conversation, the reader needs another way to read between the lines.

The clue can be a physical beat, such as a wink or a frown, alerting the reader that the character is being duplicitous.  Emotional beats–feeling disappointed, angered, etc.–work depending on the POV (point-of-view), but are subtle.  Showing the reaction of other characters works too.  Sometimes the author has to hit the reader over the head with the double entendre, but it’s better than the reader missing it and thinking, “Huh? I’m lost!”

Complicated, yes, but then so are people and the circumstances they land themselves in.  Using multi-dimensional motive in dialogue gives writing a lifelike feel.  I think a novel succeeds when I read it and forget it’s fiction.

Comment: Is there a motive #5 I missed?  Enlighten me, please.


  1. I am really trying to get the hang of better dialogue. I do think that it is the hardest thing to write effectively!

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