Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Importance of Mystery in Dialogue

During finals week, I came across the following note on a white board:

The white board was outside of a professor's office. I was intrigued and stopped to reread the note.

Lord knows that as a professor, I have wanted to write these very words on my office door. But I knew I never would, and I was pretty sure this professor was not the writer either.

I tilted my head, side to side, rereading the note.

Why this did short note from a student make me pause?

Because of the mystery hidden within these four words.

Several thoughts ran through my mind.

Perhaps the student was just being overly dramatic. It wouldn't be the first time a student espoused these words during finals.

Perhaps the student knew the professor would know who wrote it and would find humor in it. I have students who purposely revel in student-driven angst for cheap laughs from me.

Perhaps the student was truly feeling low, and these words were an act of reaching out. My office always had tissues, a seat, and me ready to give a hug to those students who had reached points of mass despair.

These four words made me stop and think about the person who wrote them. Who was s/he? Why did s/he write this? What did s/he hope the response would be? What effect did writing this have on the writer?

What does this note have to do with dialogue?

This need of understanding the person behind these words is the exact need I have when reading dialogue in a story.

Image courtesy of digitalart at

As Elspeth Futcher wittily illustrated in her post Monday via the writing sheep, dialogue should not be the place where readers are fed life dialogue, the small chat that goes on before the "meat" of a conversation (or is the WHOLE conversation).

Dialogue, for me, is about revealing character and moving a story along. Sometimes, those revelations come directly from the conversation being had, and sometimes, like in the white board note, the revelations come wrapped in a mystery within the dialogue.

This type of dialogue activates the reader's mind, makes her think about the character and his thoughts and actions, and makes the reader guess what the character might do next in the story. As the reader continues on in the story, her thoughts are confirmed, denied, or assuaged by the character's actions.

What if you read a story in which the character said, "So annoyed. Bye forever"?

As a reader, you might think, Oh no. I hope she doesn't harm herself.

You're invested, and part of your reading experience is about seeing what happens to the character after that mysterious piece of dialogue.

Several pages later, you learn that the character was contemplating self-harm, but a friend reached her in time and thwarted her attempts.

Writers, if you want to keep readers racing to the end of the story, make sure one of the components you develop is your dialogue. Reveal your characters through it. Move your story through it. And provide mystery within it so that your readers can engage themselves into your story.

Writers, how much attention do you give to developing your dialogue?

Readers, what do you love (or hate) about some of the dialogue you read?

Creative Passionista Shon Bacon is an author, a crafter, an editor, and an educator whose biggest joys are writing and helping others develop their craft. You can learn more about Shon at her website, ChickLitGurrl.


  1. The note did exactly what you tell writers to do: activate the mind. So I read the rest of your post with interest, and you're exactly right. BUT, what did the note mean? Inquiring minds want to know.

  2. Great article - that snippet of written dialogue is rich with possible meaning. My problem with dialogue is I'm writing a first person memoir, and trying to find ways to not make it talking heads, no action. Curious how to get around that.

    1. Thanks, Heather. I think one thing you could do is some visualization work. I'm not sure how you are structuring your memoir, but examining each story you plan to tell and making not of not only what was said, but also what actually happened will help you get the action down, too.

    2. Heather, even though this article I'm about to post focuses on novel writing, I think it will definitely help you with working on your memoir, too. It's on balancing action, narrative, and dialogue in storytelling. Hope it helps!

    3. Heather, this could be a good article, too, and the site in general is worth a look:

  3. Thank you!!!!! These are helpful!!!

  4. Too often I think we get so caught up in the POV character, we forget that the rest of the cast have lives between scenes. When the main character walks into a scene, the other characters have had good days or bad days, are happy or sad or mad. The best advice I received was to consider the scene from the POV of the other crucial character(s). It deepens the conversation.

  5. For me, writing in multiple POVs helps me develop other characters, and this often occurs through dialogue. This post is a keeper, Shon.

  6. What a great post. I loved the example of the note and how you dug through the layers of the words. That is how we get to the meaning of the dialogue.

    1. And to answer your questions, I pay a lot of attention to dialogue. I learned a lot about how to write effective dialogue in screenwriting classes.

      What I hate in some books is all the polite-speak that Elspeth wrote about Monday. And the repeat of names. "Hello John." "How are you Larry?." "I'm fine, John. You?" "I'm great, Larry."

      I have actually run across dialogue like that in recent books. Not to that extreme, but enough to make me stop reading.


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