Monday, September 28, 2009

Silent Dialogue – Part 1

Silent Dialogue:
Take the Reader inside your Character's Mind

If you really want the reader to feel what your character feels, to know her deepest, most intimate thoughts, consider making your character's mind a kind of amusement park ride, and let the reader jump onboard occasionally to experience the thrill.

WARNING: Do this sparingly and only to good effect.  Like so many weapons in the writer's arsenal, you can overuse it and desensitize the reader, thus rendering the weapon impotent.  Pick your spots.  Make sure your weapon packs a punch!

Silent Dialogue (expressed in italicized text, and technically a monologue) promotes characterization and plot in much the same way spoken dialogue does.  The difference, of course, is that the character speaks to her self, silently, within the confines of her own mind.  Through the magic of narration, we bring the readers inside her mind and let them hear her thoughts.

Readers enjoy dialogue, for it brings a character to life, makes her a breathing, feeling, thinking being, in a way simple narrative can't.  Yet if you have a scene in which only one character is present, what can you do?  Think about your own life.  How often, when you're alone, do you speak aloud to yourself?  Let your character do the same when it's appropriate.  She can also speak to her self silently, just as you do in your life when you don’t want someone to hear you.

We all do it.  It's a natural human act.  If you want your character to be human, to live on the page, don’t be afraid to let her do the same.

Our most common use of Silent Dialogue is to ask our selves a question.  Questions are another useful tool in the writer's arsenal, yet they can also be dangerous.  If you ask too many questions, without providing immediate answers, you will likely frustrate the reader, who counts on the narrator to be the authority.  However, it might be perfectly reasonable for one of your characters to ask a question for which there is not yet an answer.  You may use that tool to promote suspense, and you may want to use Silent Dialogue to do so.

To illustrate, I offer this excerpt (I use more Silent Dialogue here than in most of my novel) from my debut novel, Forgive Me, Alex.  I've placed the Silent Dialogue in a bold font only to highlight it here.  In your manuscript, use regular italicized text.  NOTE: As this is a public blog, I've displayed some of the expletives more…creatively.
            The distinctive crushing of metal assaulted our Saturday afternoon, as Alex and I watched television and waited for Mom to return from the store.  I jumped from the chair and looked out the living room window, but I couldn't see enough of the street from there, so I darted into the kitchen for a better angle.
            Dear God, no!
            I yelled to Alex as I bolted to the back door.  "Stay put, Hoopster!  You hear me?  Do not come outside!"
            Mom was back—almost.  Our Chevy Bel Air sat right in front of our house, crushed into an impossibly condensed version of itself.  A half-ton pick-up truck, its front end curled forward in a crescent moon, loomed over the windshield of our car.  I ran through the glass and the debris to the twisted wreckage.
            Where is she?  She must be in there.  I have to find her!
            I looked into the envelope-sized gap where the driver-side window had once been.  The back of Mom's head was barely visible above the crushed compartment.
            "Mom, are you okay?  Mom!"
            I pulled my head back, reached through the gap with my left hand, and walked my fingers along the wreckage to reach her.  I found her wet, sticky hair and stretched out…farther…farther.  I couldn’t turn her face toward me, so I moved my fingers from her chin and up the far side of her face, and
            I bolted upright.
            My brain would not—could not—register what I'd felt.  I stared at my left hand as I used my right hand to wipe away the blood and the gray matter.  Everything began to spin and close in, and my chest hammered with every breath, as though God had reached down and clutched the air from the world.  I leaned against the car, and my hands painted two red streaks down the metal as my legs folded beneath me and I collapsed against the jagged wreck.
            All was dark, a blank.
            Life resumed as a man fell from the pick-up truck, coughed and spat on the street.  He looked at me, inched forward on his hands and knees, and vomited.  It took him a moment to recover, but he….
            What in hell is he doing?
            The rotten #&#$$*&#&$# laughed and whooped it up as though he'd perpetrated some ingenious practical joke.  His bloodshot eyes radiated as he spewed a garbled, incoherent mush that my mind struggled to translate.
            "S##t!  I think I f###ed up my truck, buddy.  Can you give a fella a hand?"
            He faded in and out of focus as my last image of Mom—what was left of her—overpowered me.  Everything paused, but as I caught my breath and the spinning stopped, the full tragedy dawned on me.  The wicked b####rd who'd crushed my mom…was drunk.
            My legs had deserted me, turned to dust.  I could only look around in a daze at our neighbors, who'd emerged from their houses to investigate.  What should I—
            The a####le's staccato bursts of drunken laughter again pulled me back.  The very air I breathed stifled me—gas, oil, burnt rubber and a vague metallic tinge, all mingled with the sour contents of the killer's stomach poured onto the street.  I raised my hands, bathed in crimson and wafting copper, before my face.
            A disembodied voice spoke from the void—my voice.  "Where did the blood come from?  Did I cut myself?"
            "What's that, buddy?"  The murderous b####rd laughed again.  "S##t!  You think you got it bad?  Just look at my f####ng truck!"
            I floated still, adrift in an endless gray ocean of broken thought, and struggled to make sense of the fluid that drenched my hands.  It was…it was….
            Oh, God, it's Mom's blood and brains.

I hope you found that helpful.  Perhaps you're ready to return to your manuscript to throw in a few lines—remember, not too many—of Silent Dialogue.

'Til next time, remember this: Writing well is not easy.  It takes work.  You mustn't be lazy.


  1. Good post. Silent dialogue had been a cloudy area for me, so this is very helpful.

    Great excerpt too, I look forward to reading the novel when it is ready.

  2. I've seen very little discussion about silent dialogue. This was most helpful. Thanks.