Tips for Injecting Dialogue With Suspense and Tension

In Conflict, Action and Suspense, William Noble recommends using the "Well/Maybe" approach to writing dialogue to maintain dramatic tension.

Humans are rarely directly responsive to one another, especially when conversing. More often, responses will be oblique or partial:

"Would you tell me your name, please?"
"Why”re you asking?"

Often, our minds are on what we”ll say when the other person finishes, and we don”t listen carefully to the words coming at us. We”ll usually pick up the mood and perhaps the gist, but we want to get our own words in. For example: "The cold bites tonight." If we”re listening carefully, we might respond: "It makes my fingers tingle." But if we”re concerned with getting home before midnight, we might say: "I”ll get locked out if we don”t hurry." The second choice is not responsive, but that doesn”t make it any less interesting. . . .

Instead of a direct response, quite often we should use an indirect response, or even an unresponse. In terms of confrontations and conflict, rather than use Yes/No dialogue, we might find it more appropriate to use "Well/Maybe" — an indirect, oblique response:

"I wish you”d watch where you”re walking."
"God, these cobwebs are gross."

Indirect here, but we don”t lose the sense of conflict, do we? Instead of the second character saying "I couldn”t help it!" we create an oblique dialogue passage that is partially responsive (the cobwebs could cause ducking and stumbling) but also expands the scene (now we know there are eerie cobwebs). This is Well/Maybe.

There are several ways to handle it:

  • Answer a question with a question.
  • Let two or three dialogue passages go by before answering an earlier question.
  • Mimic the speaker”s line.
  • Interrupt the speaker. 
  • Don”t answer what happened, but say why it happened.

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Elements Of Writing Fiction: Conflict, Action & Suspense

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