This should be our last week to look at John chapter four, though I have ideas for future posts about different passages. I think there are two more principles we can pull out of the text. Again, for those who missed the previous posts, they can be found here: Part 1 and Part 2.
Real People Don’t Always Say What They’re Thinking
First, take a look at verse 27, where the disciples come back from their errand to get food. They’re extremely surprised by the fact that Jesus is talking with a woman, especially this woman, a Samaritan.
But none of them says anything.
Often the words that people don’t say carry as much significance as the ones they do. This can be used multiple ways in a story. For instance, the context of what’s going on might be plain to everyone, so that Jesus, the disciples, and the reader all know what they want to say and why. Or the reader might know because of a scene they read previously, but not all of the characters have that information. Or the POV character might think about what they want to say, or the other character could even comment on the silence to bring it to the reader’s attention.
Get creative with your silence. Using every word on the page for maximum impact is a powerful technique, but don’t neglect to take advantage of opportunities where missing words carry just as much weight.
Real People Either Lead or Follow in Conversations
Finally, look back over the entire exchange between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. Notice that she follows Jesus as he shifts the subject throughout. This is a subtle indication of which of them is in control, who has the power.
Whether you believe that Jesus is omniscient or not, he pretty clearly steers the topic from beginning to end. He dictates the lane changes, while she scrambles to shift gears.
When a general starts talking about pontoon boats with a captain, the lower-ranked officer goes with the flow. If it happens the other way around, the general either keeps the conversation where he wants it or he condescends and allows the shift, which still underlines his power.
This balance of power may not always be as clear cut in your story though. The conversation might be a battle for power, with characters conceding control in one place but fighting to change the subject in another. Or maybe one individual is clearly the intellectual superior, and that is illustrated by the flow of the conversation. Or perhaps intellect is winning the day, but a sudden revelation of information shifts power to a “weaker” character.
As with all of these principles, there are numerous ways this can play out, but being aware of it will hopefully allow you to add depth, realism, and tension to each bit of dialogue you write.
Ben Whiting is a full-time English student at the University of Texas at Arlington and co-general editor of the award-winning collegiate publication Marine Creek Reflections. He recently completed the rough draft of his suspense novel, Penumbra.