Exclusive Dialogue: When Readers Don't Know What You're Talking About

Exclusive Dialogue: When Readers Don’t Know What Your Characters Are Talking About

A good story will always be a balance between providing readers necessary information—and keeping them curious by not giving them all the info. Nowhere is this more true than in dialogue.

Make no mistake. This is a tough wire on which to balance. Give readers too much juice, and they’ll not only grow bored, they may also feel as if you are dumping info on them or condescending to them from your toplofty summit of superior knowledge. But give them too little info, and they’ll not only suffer confusion, they may still end up resenting you for condescension.

How does that work anyway? How can you condescend to readers by not dumping info or flaunting your knowledge? This is where we run right smack into the problem of exclusive  dialogue.

What is exclusive dialogue?

Think of exclusive dialogue as an inside joke. You and your characters know what’s being talked about—but your poor readers are left out in the cold. In the First Five Pages, agent Noah Lukeman uses the analogy of the odd man out at a party:

A good example of exclusive dialogue: you feel shut out as a reader, as if you’ve crashed someone’s private party and no one has any intention of filling you in. Note the plethora of cryptic and personal references, the clipped speech. This type of dialogue is sure to make the reader angry, [since] it seems as if the writer is blatantly disregarding him.

Most of us have probably found ourselves in a real-life situation like that. We stand there, grinning bravely, nodding along, trying to project an understanding of what the other people are conversing about. Meanwhile, they go right on talking over our heads, making no effort to include our obviously willing selves in their conversation.

Can you say awkward?

That’s how your readers feel when you let your characters ramble on in enigmatic sentences that hint at something juicy and interesting without including the reader.

An example of exclusive dialogue

“Did you get the thing—the you know?”“Yeah, I got it.”“How’s it look?”“Oh, you know.”

Did you get any of that? Does it make you want to read on—or does it just annoy you? If readers are left dangling like this, without any further context, they’re going to feel as if you’re taunting them with what you know and they don’t.

Does exclusive dialogue ever work?

Occasionally, you can get away with using cryptic dialogue as a hook, such as Trinity’s conversation with Cypher at the beginning of The Matrix or the phone call overhead by Barbara Stanwyck’s bed-ridden character in Sorry, Wrong Number. But these instances must always be used with care.  You rarely want POV characters knowing something your readers don’t. Instead, you want to create an intimacy between your readers and your character, in order to heighten your readers’ vicarious experience of the story. Exclusive dialogue creates distance between your readers and your character—and makes it that much harder for readers to identify with the story or suspend their disbelief.

The best use of exclusive dialogue will always be instances in which your POV character is just as clueless as your reader. In these instances, the mystery of the dialogue becomes a focus within the plot—instead of just a cheap gimmick to try to hook the readers’ curiosity.

How can you remedy exclusive dialogue?

The answer to this one is easy: make the dialogue inclusive. Instead of writing dialogue that is purposefully vague or obscure, spell things out. Specificity will almost always bring more power—and more reader curiosity—than will vague rumblings anyway. You want readers to be curious enough to ask specific questions. In order for them to do that, they first have to be given enough specific facts to allow them to frame those questions.

We might rewrite our original example like this:

“Did you get the puppy for Jamie?”“Yeah, I got him a mastiff.”“How’s it look?”“Like I should have gotten him a Pomeranian instead.”

Before, we had no idea what the characters were talking about, who they were, what they were up to, or why we should care. Now, we have enough specific facts to understand exactly what’s going on. Now, we can actually participate in the story, instead of just looking on as an outsider.

Tell me your opinion: How do you think you can keep a secret from your readers without frustrating them?

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Wow, this was great! My dialogue in the early pages always felt vague and alienating but I could never really pinpoint the cause. This helps me a ton. Just gotta remember that mysteries need a foundation if the readers are going to care about them. Thanks!

  2. Thanks for sharing, this. Hope I’m not guilty but I do know I’ve got to trim some of my dialog. Good point to consider.

  3. @R.J.: The key to creating good mysteries within our stories is to make sure we’re giving our readers enough information to shape specific questions – not just “What’s going on here?”

    @Rich: We’re all probably guilty of this from time to time. Just being aware of it is what’s important.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. I have problems even with dialogue like your second example. Sometimes it either goes on too long or the writer does scatter enough clues as to who is speaking each line. Writers occasionally have a speaker do two lines and there is little to no indication that the same speaker is saying both lines. It drives me crazy when I get lost in this type of dialogue.

  6. Speaker attribution is hugely important. We won’t often need to tag every line. But if there’s ever any doubt which character is talking, we always need to clarify for readers.

  7. I’ve read books where I have no idea what is happening in the dialogue, and it’s so frustrating.

    That last example is excellent. Not only does it bring us into the conversation, but it tells us something about Jamie, and about the unnamed purchaser.

  8. Authors and readers are always on the same team. We want to bring readers into an experience of our stories, not shut them out.

  9. I’m treading a very fine line when it comes to this kind of dialog in my WIP, because I don’t want the reader to know “what’s really going on” until my MCs figure it out. In the meantime, the instigators of “what’s really going on” (two of whom are POV characters) need to go about discussing and doing it, but in ways that don’t give it away while keeping the reader hooked, wondering, and rooting for my MCs to get to the bottom of it. Tricky, tricky, tricky!

  10. So long as your MC is clueless too, you have a wider line on which to balance. The real problem always comes when the POV character is in the know but the reader isn’t.

  11. Dialogue is a challenge for me to write. I usually have to interrogate my characters before they’ll share deep dark secrets. They’re often too busy telling me how to write the story. 🙂

  12. Yeah, characters can be bossy little critters sometimes. :p

  13. Great points. In the past when I read exclusive dialogue, I found it pulled me right out of the story. It was hard to get any context at all and when I finally did figure out what was going on, I sometimes would have to read the conversation again. You’re right. Very frustrating as a reader. Great post.

  14. And even after we re-read it, we don’t always get it. Readers “not getting it” is never a good thing.

  15. Hi K.M.

    Great post. I have the book the First Five Pages and I can honestly say it’s the best book I have ever read regarding writing. If any writers are thinking about making a writing related book purchase then that book is definitely the one to go for. I also have a Pomeranian but that is beside the point 😉

  16. Better a Pomeranian than a Mastiff, I would imagine! :p

  17. Loved this post–it’s something that’s always driven me crazy (as a reader), but I never had a name to put to it before.

    Linked here (5 Reasons I Put Down Your Book): http://rmhaskell.elementfx.com/2013/07/readerly-irritations/

  18. Thanks so much for linking back to the post (great blog, BTW!).

  19. When reading something vague, I found that I am bored out of my mind when I don’t know what I don’t know, but if I’m aware of what is being kept from me I want to find out what it is. (Despite being very frustrated.) So two people are talking in the vernacular about made-up technology, I just tune them out. Two people are talking about a package, I keep reading until I know what’s in the package.

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      Authors have to frame the questions correctly. We *want* readers to be asking questions, and that means we have to keep them in the dark in regard to certain information. But we have to design the questions to be very specific. “What’s in the package?” is a good question. “What the heck is going on here?” is a bad question.

  20. This has always been a peeve of mine! I love it when a story tries to be mysterious, but it doesn’t always work. I find it happens with rubbish movies mostly that start mid-scene, but fail to actually update people on what’s happening with a key it of dialogue or cleverly placed prop in-shot.

    In novels when it happens it’s even worse because you’re limited to the words on screen rather than a visual.

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      We live in a visual age, in which novels are heavily influenced by movies. But it’s important to remember that they’re distinct media. Things that work in movies aren’t always going to be so successful in books.

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