Dialogue is one of the pillars of writing fiction. But we all have written our fair share of clunky dialogue to know how hard it can be to make our imaginary characters speak in a realistic and compelling way.
I want to focus on the trick called “The Sidestep.”
Simply put, “The Sidestep” is when the dialogue of one character to another is not direct to the preceding dialogue.
Let’s say a character asks a direct question. “Hey, what happened to our TV set?”
The roommate answers: “You ever get the feeling we watch too much TV?”
This is certainly more realistic than for the roommate to launch into an expository plot dump of well-thought-out narrative material. “I sold it because I was worried about our watching habits, thus I have meddlingly started a chain of conflict with you that will carry through the rest of the story.”
People rarely answer questions directly, and they rarely say what’s on their minds, and lastly, people rarely see right to the heart of the matter and say it.
Sci-Fi writers sometimes screw this one up whenever they need the science and the fiction to mesh.
“The explanation for the disappearance of the TV is this: It turns out that our living room is a warp nexus for interdimensional wombats who utilize fractal quarks to enmesh simple objects in their nefarious plans to destroy human life. Do you want a bagel?”
Using the sidestep is a great way to keep your characters from info/plot dumping in dialogue.
It is also an excellent way to add more conflict. Characters that misunderstand, mislead and miscommunicate are much more compelling than those who say what they mean.
Most humans communicate obliquely, so why aren’t your characters?