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.

by K.M. Weiland

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 tal62-1013tm-cart-communicationked 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:

iA 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.

Think of exclusive dialogue as an inside joke.

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 Communicate Definition Magnifier Showing Dialog Networking Or Speakinginstances 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.

They’re going to feel as if you’re taunting them with what you know and they don’t.

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.

-K.M. Weiland


K.M. WeilandK.M. Weiland is the author of the historical western A Man Called Outlaw and the medieval epic Behold the Dawn.

She enjoys mentoring other authors through her writing tips, her book Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success, and her instructional CD Conquering Writer’s Block and Summoning Inspiration.

1 thought on “When Readers Don’t Know What Your Characters Are Talking About”

  1. Thnxs Jamie, There are some good pointers in here for students, especially introducing the idea that the writer should always be considering their audience.

    The only danger that I read into the ideas explained here, is that a novice writer might come away from this article thinking that the meaning should be in the text (the dialogue), rather than meaning inferred from subtext.
    For instance the exclusive dialogue example could be appropriate depending on the previous scene, the character arcs and how well the audience is empathising with the protaganist. Something could be happening in the scene from which we infer meaning that isn’t in the dialogue. Raymond Carver comes to mind.


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