People Never Say What They Mean
I studied writing at university and I specialised in scriptwriting for film and television. I remember in one particular lecture we were learning about dialogue. The lecturer told us that people never say what they really mean. “If you want to make your dialogue feel real,” he said, “then remember that people rarely have a straightforward conversation.” These few words changed the way I wrote forever.
This idea that people never say what they mean fascinated me. My immediate reaction was to question it. Why wouldn’t we say what we mean? Of course we do. Don’t we? Then I realised that conversation is complicated. We often lie. Even to ourselves. We tell people what they want to hear, or, more importantly, what we think they want to hear. We hide the truth a lot of the time. Perhaps it’s because we fear what people might think of us or how someone may react. Perhaps it’s because we want to make a certain impression. In any conversation there could be a whole raft of complicated things going on.
After the lecture, I started to listen to conversations more. Not just what was being said, but what people actually meant behind the words. I started to learn more about how people interacted, and I started to bring these ideas into my writing. And that’s when I noticed that my writing was improving.
In my novel In the Blood, I really utilised the idea of people not saying what they mean. Our two protagonists, Penelope and David, bump into each other one day and instantly recognise each other. They seem to know everything about one another, but they can’t work out at all how they ever could have met. It seems impossible.
The first part of the book is written all from Penelope’s perspective, and we see how she struggles to understand what is going on. She craves answers, but everyone around her is trying to control her, and David is a man of few words. I loved playing with the idea that she never knows if what she’s being told is the truth or not. But she also knows that the people around her love her. Their actions aren’t malicious. Why would all these people lie?
In the second half of the book we flip to see everything from David’s perspective. We see how he struggles to communicate, and we find out what he’s hiding and why. I very much enjoyed writing two completely different perspectives across the book from a couple so entwined in each other’s lives but without knowing how or why. I loved balancing Penelope’s more talkative nature against David’s natural silence, yet the pair worked really well together.
I was very careful, though, not to make it contrived. David wasn’t not saying things because it engendered mystery. I created the characters as they are because that’s how real relationships work and I wanted to explore that. If people don’t tell you what they really feel then how do you ever get to know them? We manage it all the time, but it’s not easy.
The blurb from my book Emmett the Empathy Man reads “Be careful what you wish for”, and this idea of balancing what people really want versus what they say they want is at the heart of this comedy. It’s about three friends who create a superhero for fun, and then he comes to life and starts messing with their lives. Whatever they wish for, mostly subconsciously, he makes come true. What our heart really desires isn’t always what we portray on the outside, and that made this book huge fun to write. It could be nothing else but a comedy.
Of course, like all my books, there’s a love story running through it. In this story there are two people who really fancy each other but they both assume that the other doesn’t fancy them. They’re best friends but never tell each other the truth about their feelings. I had some lovely feedback once from a reader. He told me that he’d empathised with the characters so much, and the idea of fearing how you really feel and what will happen if you speak the truth really resonated with him. I was thrilled that a reader had related so much to the characters.
I didn’t just want to create a love triangle for the sake of the story. I wanted to explore these complications because they felt real. These are the problems that people face, and if we all said what we meant then these problems wouldn’t exist.
For anyone who is looking to improve the way they write dialogue, I can’t emphasise enough the power of utilising the idea that people don’t say what they mean. Often they won’t even know themselves that they’re lying. People are incredibly complex, and the more you can explore that in your writing, the better your dialogue will be. It’s also great fun to write! Just make sure that you develop your characters well. Don’t just have miscommunication because it helps with your plotline or you think it might be funny. Make sure you do it because that’s what makes your characters feel real.