Write Better Dialogue: Sidesteps

Dahlias in my front yard.

I’m reading a new writing technique book by James Scott Bell, called Revision and Self-Editing for Publication. It’s not bad, although I am mostly seeing the techniques re-branded, using different terms than I’m accustomed to seeing. One that caught my eye was sidesteps in dialogue.
Writing Tip for Today: What’s a sidestep and how do you use it?

  • Redirection and Sidestep are Equals. I’ve called the technique a “redirection of dialogue.” That is, when one character speaks, the other doesn’t simply answer. The tension rises in a scene when the dialogue isn’t predictable. In life we often bore ourselves silly with expected dialogue (Think: How are you? Fine.), but we won’t stand for predictable in a novel.
  • Choose an Unexpected Answer. So if one character asks, “What time is the show tonight?” the other character might sidestep the expected answer by asking another question, by using sarcasm or silence to indicate conflict, or by redirecting the attention away from the original question. Possible ways to sidestep this example: “Oh you’re not going to bring that up again, are you?”; “You expect me to know everything! Look it up yourself!” or “Hey, there’s a movie on TV I’ve been dying to see. Let’s stay home.”
  • Sidestep Gradually. I’ve been learning lately in my own fiction that if you are building in conflict through dialogue, it must feel logical and natural. If your characters are angling for a fight through the sidesteps of dialogue, gradually increase the tension until one character snaps. But be careful: If your protagonist is picking shouting matches with everyone she meets, it could be a turn-off for the reader. Be aware of the character’s likability factor–you don’t want her so obnoxious she drives away readers.

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About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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