Today I want to talk about one of the finest, most intricate arts of writing; that of layered dialogue. I don’t claim to be a master at this by any stretch of the imagination, and so rather than having this post be about “how to write layered dialogue”, I just want to share what I’ve learned about it.
Dialogue is, on the surface, a very simple form of fiction. It’s two characters talking to each other. Easy, right? It might seem that way, but in reality, good dialogue is difficult to write. Layered dialogue is even harder. And in my opinion, all good dialogue is at least a little bit layered.
What is layered dialogue?
I’m going to define it, because a lot of people don’t quite understand it. Layered dialogue is when the words spoken point to something of deeper meaning. The exchange of words between characters is essentially the tip of the iceberg. There are varying degrees of layered dialogue. It can be layered only a little, or it can be deeply, intricately, and complexly woven together.
Lately, I’ve been studying at the college with Sam, and one of his classes had an assignment to take a section of a play (so just dialogue) and change the meaning of the words by tone, action, and expression. I was immediately interested, because layered dialogue. The excerpt was about two men in a subway station. One starts asking the other random questions, which, when you read it, sounds kind of creepy.
With no context given, we discussed possible ways to change the meaning of a seemingly random conversation. The first option was that the characters are war vets, and one of them has amnesia. The “random” questions and answers are an attempt to help him remember things from his past. The other option we came up with was even more layered. The seemingly aimless conversation was actually taking place between a terrorist and someone who has been working as a double agent in planning an attack on the city. All of the words are now part of a code. By changing the context and the characters’ attitudes, we were able to change the tone of the conversation from one of creepy pointlessness to direct fear. It became menacing by just a few gestures and voice inflections. We never changed a single word.
A script is one thing, though. Prose is another. Layered dialogue in prose can, in some respects, be even more difficult to master. As I said, I am by no means an expert. I’ve learned to watch for layered dialogue in movies, but also in books. As I mentioned, there are varying depths of layered dialogue.
If you really stop to think about it, a lot of dialogue is layered. Conversations in real life are layered. Why? Because human beings are layered. We’re deep. Our emotions are complicated. We don’t always say what we mean or mean what we say. The depth of layered dialogue can range from a coded terrorist attack to a character saying “I’m fine” with a smile and a shrug, but the reality is that she’s deeply depressed and potentially suicidal.
Superficial dialogue rarely benefits a story. This is a challenge to look deeper into your own characters, and those in other works of fiction. Search out the layered dialogue. Study it. There are really only two rules for writing fiction: read and write. Learn and practice. While I definitely haven’t mastered this art of layered dialogue, I know that I’m getting better all the time, and that’s encouraging. One of the things I’d suggest is doing exactly what Sam and I did – find a piece of random dialogue out of context, and, without changing any of the spoken words, shift the meaning. Layer it. Get creative. It’s amazing the things you can come up with and make work.