#4 “Yes” can be boring

There’s a dialogue technique that first made a conscious impression on me through television (of course, fellow novelists, “the book is always better”—but I can’t change history): indicating agreement or disagreement without using a common “yes” or “no”. Recollection #1 (credit American Horror Story): Accusation: “You’ve been drugging my coffee every morning!” Reply: “Prove it.” Recollection #2 (credit Lena Dunham): Suggestion: “We should swap shirts!” Reply: “You’re a mind reader.”

It would have been easy to write replies of “yes,” “no,” or “OK” —easy and so forgettable.  But we learn so much more about the responding character with just a few extra words, what kind of person they are, what they’ve been thinking, what they think about the other character.

The synonyms readily available on the internet certainly serve their purpose, as do the occasional “No.” then “No!” then “Never!”, and even the well-placed “Please.” And oftentimes the simple reply is best. But overlooked are the opportunities to go further, restructure the dialogue to pack more into the affirmations and rejections. Below I’ve isolated some techniques from Righteous Judgment:

Name calling/confrontation: Not “We’re safe” … “No we’re not, that could’ve tipped him off.” Instead “We’re safe” … “Idiot! That could’ve tipped him off.”

Explanation/justification: Not “Can’t I go alone?” … “No.” Instead “Can’t I go alone?” … “Too much at stake.”

Repetition: Not “Shred and burn those when you’re done” … “OK.” Instead “Shred and burn those when you’re done” … “Shred and burn.”

Generalize: “Release a hostage and we’ll keep the lights on” … “I don’t make concessions for lights”

Ignore: “Release a hostage and we’ll keep the lights on” … “Now you have only twenty-nine minutes to meet my demands.”

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