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Writing Dialogue: Don’t Answer That Question

Gen Con is far in the distant future, but I’m absolutely terrible at procrastinating, so I’ve been pondering one of my classes in the Gen Con Writers Symposium. Don’t Answer That Question: Writing Dialogue With Momentum will be a two-hour seminar dedicated to the art of writing Dialogue, and I’ve been slowly collecting pieces of dialogue that genuinely work for me and dissecting the absolute living daylights out of them.

Why Shouldn’t I Answer That Question?

I used to write a lot of what I like to call ping pong talk. Quick question/answer pairs all lined up nicely in a row. They got the job done. Information was transferred from the page to the readers brain. That’s the purpose of writing, right?

It wasn’t until I made this challenge to myself that I broke free of the pattern:

Don’t answer the question.

That’s it. From that point forward characters stopped giving direct answers to questions. Suddenly, everything started to click into place. Characters started hiding their secret agendas. Frustration became palpable and tension built. Layers of subtext started piling up.

Without even throwing a punch, character interactions became fraught. This is perfect for my sci-fi noir series, but it works everywhere.

Well, What The Hell Are They Supposed to Say?

Everybody wants something, whether it’s answers to their own questions, a physical confrontation, or just to get the hell out of there. Responses to questions can range from slippery, sideways answers to flat-out denials to escalating questions. Responses can even be physical. Characters start to dance closer and closer to a forbidden truth like moths to a flame.

Imagine this: You went out last night. It was a wild party followed by an even wilder afterparty. Now you’re at work. Yeah, work. This is a job where you actually have to go there and interact with real, live people. This must be horror that we’re writing, because doesn’t that sound awful?

What did you do last night?

There are so many ways to answer this fairly bland question. Here are a few:

“A lot of people went home after a few beers at TGI Fridays.”

“Murder.”

“Went for a run.” From the cops.

“I hope you didn’t wait long for us. We would have met you, but we were tied up.” By the cops.

“I am way too old to be going out after dark.”

“Regular werewolf stuff.”

“We looked for you. Where were you?”

“HR says I don’t have to answer that.”

“I think the printer’s jammed.”

“I’ll tell you one thing. Jake’s Cybertruck is not capable of jumping that ravine on the south side of the parking lot. I mean, look at it, the thing is still stuck down there. Do not drink and drive, kids.”

None of these is a direct answer to the question. Well, “Murder,” might be, but that depends on how wild that party got. Now that I think about it, “Regular werewolf stuff,” might be a direct answer, too.

The point is that all of these do more than offer a direct answer to the question. Some of them do give a hint at what happened. That last one in particular gives the best super-specific detail. Other responses are clear redirects. Some are flat-out lies, but the best lies use subterfuge rather than direct falsities. Really? You went for a run? That’s great, you must be super healthy.

Do I Always Have to Avoid Answering Questions?

In writing, when we make things rare, they become tools for emphasis. This is why we reduce our adverbs and ration our gunfights. It’s why we take care when using rhyme and alliteration. We use them when it’s a big deal. Think pivotal plot points and character arc climaxes.

This dialogue example rolled across my feed a little while ago, and I immediately had to start picking it apart to see how it ticked. I love how fast it moves. I love how the relationship between the two characters never stops changing. Also, I have never seen a publisher put dialogue on a cover before. It works, though.

Fletch book cover with lines of dialogue on it.

But look at those first six lines. It takes three questions to get a straight answer about Fletch’s name, and he ends up circling back to “People call me Fletch.” Then we get the question “Fair enough?” and the non-answer “Is it criminal?”

In that line, Fletch actually asks two questions. The second is completely ignored in the response, but it’s probably the more important of the two. That question has to be asked a second time before we get the straight answer, which is really the hook for this book. “I want you to murder me.”

Every question fights for an answer. The two characters in this dialogue are sparring, and you can almost imagine them both taking stabs at the other in an attempt to gain understanding without giving anything up.

And this is just the setup. They aren’t even really rivals here, but the dialogue builds so much tension and so much momentum, it might as well be combat.

Where’s Dent?

Here’s an assignment for you. Just count the number of times in this video where The Joker doesn’t answer a question. Pay attention to all the ways he avoids, distracts, challenges. There is not a single second in this interrogation when Joker is not in control, and it’s all about how he responds to direct questions.

One more thing. I mentioned sideways answers earlier? That is what I call it when an answer skirts around the edge of the truth. The goal is to get as close as possible without actually touching it. Or, alternatively, it can be completely true but misleading. This is the example that comes to mind, and we don’t even know this is misleading until much later in the movie:

I have only one question for you, and you can respond however you like in the comments:

Did you murder him?

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