Welcome to the new Writing Q&A site! This is the place for anybody interested in the craft of professional writing, editing, and publishing. We welcome questions about all types of writing: fiction, poetry, technical documentation, journalism, scriptwriting, non-fiction, essays, and more. Got questions? Click the "ask" button! Able to offer answers? Try the search button, click on any tag, or just browse. And please vote on content that stands out.

If you have an account on Writing Stack Exchange, you can claim your questions and answers with your account here.

We're currently running on temporary software while waiting for Codidact to be ready. The URL is on codidact.com now, and the software will be updated to match later. Regardless of the software, you can help us expand our library of questions and answers right now -- please join us.

In a dialogue, how can I hint that the characters aren't telling the whole truth?


In one scene, I have a conversation between three characters: A, B and C. A's son and B are involved in something illegal. C isn't aware, and since A and B aren't entirely sure she can be trusted, they'd like to keep it that way.

The scene is being described from C's PoV (3rd person). C is not used to being deceived, so she won't be suspicious right away.

How can I hint to the reader that A and B are uncomfortable with C's presence and are leaving out information, without C noticing (until later)?

(So far, the best I've been able to do is have B stop himself in mid-sentence: "I don't know. D didn't- I haven't seen him since last week." But on its own, it's not strong enough.)

history / edit / permalink / close / delete / flag

1 comment

C can think something seems off about the behavior or way the A and B talk. Edgy Weeb about 2 months ago

3 answers


The way you've set it up, with C being a trusting character, if you want the Reader to know something is up, you find a sweet spot of them saying something that most Readers would get, but C does not.

I'd suggest code talking. That is taken to comical effect in gangster movies, but code talking is actually a real thing in criminal groups; they intentionally talk about something innocuous that has a secret meaning between them.

In your case, maybe like this, as they are breaking up.

Aaron said, "So that mission we were talking about, I can tell Dave you're on board?"
Bob shrugged and said, "Yeah, I don't think we've got a choice."
Cindy frowned at them. "What mission are you talking about?"
Aaron laughed. "Gotta kill an evil Wizard! It's an online fantasy game we started playing."
Cindy looked sceptical. "You are playing an online game?"
Aaron said, "Ah, my son got me into it. Something to do together, you know?"
Cindy said, "In lieu of talking?"
Aaron nodded. "Exactly. You're full of insight into the male condition."

history / edit / permalink / delete / flag



You do not mention whether you're telling your story in first person or third, and if in third person - limited or omniscient. In third, your task is easier, since you have the narrator to mention things that C might be missing.

I do not mean the narrator hanging a lampshade: "C didn't notice how A was gesturing to B behind C's back". That would usually be too much. But the narrator can well mention A and B exchanging glances, fidgeting, considering their words (this last one is better suited for an omniscient narrator since that's an intrusion into A and B's heads). You'd be using the characters' body language to convey their dishonesty. It's not what they're saying, but how they're saying it.

If you're telling the story in first person, letting the reader know something the character doesn't might be counter-productive. Telling a story in first person serves to bring us very close to the character's experience. By letting us know something the character doesn't, you're creating distance. In this situation I think I would let character C notice A and B are uncomfortable for some reason - this could come from how they act and how they interact. But I would give some alternative explanation, some distraction, as to why they might be uncomfortable. Then, when the true reason is uncovered, everything will fall into place.

What A and B are saying can also be vague and circumspect, but there's a problem there: if they're saying nothing, their words are just noise, you're boring the reader. They need to be saying something. It's just that they're not saying all. So what are saying needs to be sufficiently interesting, needs to propel the story forwards.

(I'll try to come up with examples later.)

history / edit / permalink / delete / flag



The way you do this effectively is through dramatic irony, which is where the reader knows something that the protagonist does not know. There is a fantastic scene in Upstairs Downstairs where one of the characters is seeing another off on an ocean voyage and they are all happy and full of plans and triumphant optimism and as the scene proceeds, the camera slowly zooms out and you see the name of the ship: "Titanic". That's dramatic irony. I don't remember which characters it was or what they were happy about but more than 30 years later I still remember that zoom shot.

In the case of a conversation like this, the way you use dramatic irony is you make sure that the reader is already aware of whatever it is C does not know before the conversation begins. Then the reader perceives at once that C does not know the secret and that A and B are deliberately avoiding mentioning it. The scene itself requires no special technique. It is all about how you set it up.

This should be taken as a general rule. To create an effect in a scene, set it up earlier. Don't try to do it by manipulating the way you tell the scene itself. That kind of thing almost always sounds contrived and takes the reader out of the scene. The craft is in the storytelling, not the prose.

history / edit / permalink / delete / flag