Making a Lie Count: Developing Dialogue that Matters

Making a Lie Count

Contributing writer Savanah Burns wrote this post offering advice on writing convincing dialogue for your characters.

I had a friend once tell me that it is weird how we can never really know someone because we are not them, we are not omniscient, and we are not omnipresent. Yet, through our limited lens, we feel as though we know someone. Often, people are more than what we perceive. So, when we talk to them, there are countless things that go unsaid. So, what is left unsaid? How about someone’s lies, motives, secrets, and the truth?

Take these two scenes for example:

 “What’s wrong?” asked Sally.

“Richard broke up with me,” said Maya.

Again? “Oh, no,” said Sally. “Are you okay?”

“No. I know everyone is going to tell me I told you so. I just wish I had support.”

“Well, I support you.” I mean, I have to, or else I’ll be pushed away like everyone else.

“I know, and I’m glad I have you, but I miss him. I’m so stupid for falling for someone I can’t have. He was never going to leave her.”

“I’m sure he was just scared of getting caught.”

 “I saw him at work with his ring on,” said Maya.

“Ouch.” He’s married, what do you expect? “So, y’all didn’t talk, like at all?” asked Sally.

“We passed each other in the hall. There was a moment.”

“Oh?” Said, Sally, as she waited for more.

“He gave me those eyes,” said Maya.

“So, y’all are back together?” asked Sally. I hope not. He’s too old for her. He just uses her.

“I don’t know.” Maya finished her makeup. “We’re going to meet and talk.”

Scene 2:

When Sally came home, Maya was sitting at the breakfast table in the kitchen. “Hey,” said Sally. “What are you doing?” Maya had just shoved something into a small, white envelope that looked like it was from the bank. It was then pulled from the table out of sight.

“Nothing,” said Maya.

“You seem chipper. Did you just get back from seeing Richard?


“I’m guessing you and Dick worked it out.”

“Yeah, you know I love him,” said Maya.

“I know,” said Sally. Then she went upstairs to read.

Tip #1: Lies

There is always a line between fact and fiction. We experience it when we speak to others, or about other people.

Maya lies to herself in thinking Richard loves her, and she also lies to Richard in letting him think she doesn’t use him.

Sally lies to Maya in order to be the support that Maya feels she does not have.

Richard lies to his wife and co-workers, so he can be with someone younger.

Tip #2: Motive

What does someone want? What drives them? Why do they do, what they do?

When someone does something, we don’t always have all the information on hand to understand why they did what they did, or why they said what they said. As one writes, dialogue should portray this gap of knowledge. For example, Maya wants Richard because she loves him, but at the end, we find it might be that she wants the perks that come with being with him.

Other times, we have the information because we know what a character is thinking. For example, Sally lies about how she feels about her friend’s situation because she doesn’t want to hurt her friend’s feelings, nor does she want to be pushed out of her friend’s life.

Lastly, sometimes we don’t have all the facts and only secondary information, so it becomes hard to determine someone’s lie and someone’s motive. For example, according to Sally, Richard wants to be with Maya for her youth. But, according to Maya, he wants her because he loves her. The ambiguity allows the reader to decide what is more believable until more information surfaces. This is information an author can play with further developing the dynamic. However, the author needs to be aware of expectations and responses.

Tip #3: Something to Hide

Dialogue can offer information showing how someone feels. For instance, Sally discloses how she feels she will lose her friend if she is honest. In the same breath, dialogue shows what goes unsaid, especially when someone’s action doesn’t match what they say. This presents a scenario where someone doesn’t want something to be known. For instance, Maya’s actions to quickly shove money into an envelope and then hidden in her lap under the table shows what she is hiding; she doesn’t want to admit that she may not love Richard, but what Richard has to give her. Or so, this is what Sally suspects.

Tip #4: The Delay

Information that gives in conversation does not always have to be straightforward and immediate. In our example, Maya does not outright say she wants to be with an older man because he has money. But, towards the end of the scene, this information is thrown out there. It can be revealed later. There was a delay in this information because of the lie.

Another thing to consider is what happens if these scenes are further developed. Writers, to generate more plot, consider having the lies revealed to other characters and address them. Sally could have easily said something about the money. Why didn’t she?

It would have contradicted her motive. However, if the story were more developed and Sally’s motives had changed, then the money and both Sally’s and Maya’s lies could be addressed. Lies tend to surface anyway. A writer can use this to their advantage. They can take any of their characters’ lies and motives, and bring them to the surface so that they can further create tension, more conflict, more plot, more character development, and even resolution.

In conclusion, having a character lie helps define and shape their character. Lies can help provide readers with information on the relationship’s dynamic, illustrate emotions, show character’s personalities, show tensions, show desires, and more. Using lies can create characterization, conflict, plot, and other literary elements. It is one way to develop one’s narrative. Consider these things the next time you write.

SAVANAH BURNS is a young poet from Huntsville. She studied English and History at Sam Houston State University, where she completed a short novella for her honors thesis. Her writing has been featured in Beacon, an undergraduate magazine, and HistoricalMX, an online historical journal. Her poem, “Starry Night,” won first prize in 2016 for a college and university contest held by The Academy of American Poets, which included an online publication. She is currently pursuing an M. F. A. in Creative Writing with an emphasis in Poetry at SHSU. She is a new addition to the Texas Review Press as a graduate assistant, as well as a new addition to the Gordian Review as its poetry editor. She is excited for what lies ahead.

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