Writing Tip: 3 Levels of Dialogue

In Josh Weil‘s Voice workshop at the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference last month, I learned about the 3 levels of dialogue, and how you should use a mix of them in your writing. I knew about 1st and 2nd level dialogue, but wasn’t familiar with the more obscure (and less-used, but useful) 3rd level dialogue. (By the way, it was a fantastic workshop, and if you ever get the chance I’d highly recommend working with Josh.)

1st level dialogue: The characters say exactly what they mean. They directly address issues. This type of dialogue generally falls flat unless the characters are forced into it by extreme stress. (My first chapter, which we workshopped at the conference, had too much of this. Now it has more 2nd level dialogue.)

Example of 1st level dialogue:

“Where have you been?” Jeff asked.

“At a friend’s,” Gina said.

“It’s getting late.”

“I lost track of time.”

Dissect it: The characters directly address issues. There is a glimmer of tension here, but overall, the dialogue is pretty boring.

Example of 1st level dialogue, when the characters are forced into it (Continuing from the scene above):


“Fine, you want the truth?” Gina asked, taking a step forward, neck outstretched. “Yes. I slept with someone. Happy now?” She raised an eyebrow and crossed her arms.

“No.” Jeff closed his eyes and cursed.

Dissect it: See how the characters still say what they mean? If the scene weren’t so tense, the dialogue wouldn’t pack as much punch.

2nd level dialogue: There is subtext; the characters say something, but mean something else (eg. a compliment is an apology). You want to use this particularly if characters are re-hashing an argument they’ve had previously, or if they’re avoiding talking about the real issue because of something like fear of being overheard in a public place, etc.

Example of 2nd level dialogue: (Continuing from the scene above)

They stood across from each other silently for a moment.

“Does he make you happy?” Jeff asked.

“What? No, it’s… it’s not about that.” Gina uncrossed her arms, ran a hand through her hair, and sighed. “Baby, I’m hungry. You wanna grab a bite to eat?”

Jeff shook his head. “Sure.”

Dissect it: Can you tell that what the characters are saying isn’t exactly what they mean? When Jeff asks if “he” makes Gina happy, he’s asking more about the status of their own relationship, and when Gina asks if Jeff wants to grab a bite to eat, it’s her way of apologizing. Jeff is conflicted about accepting the apology when he shakes his head while accepting the invitation to go out to eat.

3rd level dialogue: The reader is aware of some knowledge that the characters are oblivious to in the scene. This is an excellent way to create dramatic irony. Say we know that Gina’s lover just got a new job as a bus boy at the restaurant that Jeff and Gina are about to go to. Gina doesn’t even know this, since she was with her best friend agonizing over the affair before the scene, so she hasn’t seen her lover since before he got the job, but we just read a scene (right before everything above) from the lover’s Point of View in which he got this job.

Example of 3rd level dialogue: (Continuing from the scene above)

Gina and Jeff sat across from each other in a dimly-lit Italian restaurant. Jeff poked at his half-eaten bowl of pasta.

“Did you like it?” Gina asked.

Jeff’s lips twitched. “I just don’t understand why you would do this to us.”

“It’s not about you. It’s just something that happened. And it’s over.”

Just then, Gina’s lover picked up Gina’s empty plate and their eyes met. She lifted her fingers from the table to graze the underside of his palm.

“Sir, are you finished?” the bus boy asked.

“Yes.” Jeff pushed his plate away from him and sat back, closing his eyes.

Dissect it: Because we knew that Gina’s lover was working at the restaurant, we were waiting for the moment when Gina would run into him. There’s a special weight added to third level dialogue. Did you feel it?

Note: The dialogue ceases to be 3rd level after the “reveal” when their “eyes met”. After that, it goes back to 2nd level.

Do you understand the differences between the 3 levels of dialogue? Were my examples clear? I tried to make up a situation that would clearly illustrate the 3 levels of dialogue in a short space. Try looking over some dialogue you’ve written to figure out what level(s) it is. Make sure your manuscript isn’t only 1st level dialogue. It falls flat after a few paragraphs, unless the tension is ratcheted high.

I’ll be posting more writing tips I learned at MCWC in the coming weeks, and on Fridays, look for my #FridayFlash Fiction.

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One thought on “Writing Tip: 3 Levels of Dialogue”

  1. Wow. I mean, I always understood the basic idea behind the three levels but I’d never seen them separated out and spelled out like this. It’s always helpful to have this stuff spelled out so that you can really think about it critically.

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