I have two characters, Alice and Bob. They have just met and each is trying to deceive the other. But their thought processes and the nature of their deceptions are very different from one another, and I would like to contrast these things.

Alice is engaged in some legally or ethically dubious activity. Bob has arrived suddenly and with little explanation. Her primary goal is to maintain control of the situation and prevent Bob from learning anything incriminating. Her secondary goal is to learn who Bob is and what he is doing there.

Bob has a very limited understanding of how he arrived and where he is. His primary goal is to figure those things out. When Alice initially spoke to him, she asked him a question which betrayed a profound and suspicious lack of knowledge. As a result, Bob's secondary goal is to prevent Alice from learning anything which might be dangerous until he knows why she lacks this information. That includes not giving away his own suspicion as well as accounting for himself.

Both characters are quite intelligent and carefully consider their every word. They also hang on each others' every word. When I conceptualize their interaction, both characters have a great deal of narrative voice, fretting about what might be inferred from one sentence or another. These narratives are, in my opinion, more important to the plot than the actual dialog, which largely consists of evasions and pretexts.

I like the idea of contrasting their asymmetrical approaches to the situation. But I don't want to write two instances of the scene with a flashback, because I feel it would dilute the contrast. I specifically want to juxtapose Alice's thoughts on saying something with Bob's thoughts on hearing that same thing, and vice-versa. If I write a flashback, these things would be too far apart from one another and the contrast would not have the same immediacy.

Another thought I had was to tell the reader about the conversation, in third-person omniscient, instead of showing them every line of dialog in third-person limited. But this breaks mimesis, and it just feels wrong. I found the narratives entertaining because the characters sometimes jump to wildly incorrect conclusions which are logical based on the available evidence. I find it difficult to tell the reader about these mistakes in a way which is still amusing. I'm sure it's possible, but it seems like a lot of work for something I get "for free" if I stick with third-person limited. I can just drop "Obviously, [something absurd]" into the running narrative, instead of having to go through the whole spiel of diegetically summarizing the conversation, the character's reasoning, how they are wrong, etc., and somehow still making the reader laugh. Terry Pratchett could do that and it would be hilarious, but I'm not him and I have no idea how to pull it off.

I'm seriously considering just putting both narrative voices in and alternating between them along with the dialog. I would differentiate them enough to avoid confusion (perhaps with paragraph separation, severe variances in diction or tone, or some other reasonably unambiguous factor). This is certainly unorthodox, but my real question is can I get away with it? If not, what should I do instead?

(I'm not a professional writer. I don't care what the editor will think, because I have no editor. By "get away with it," I mean "write like this without it being confusing or otherwise bad," rather than "make it past the editor's desk.")

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    I think this is a Your Mileage May Vary situation. You might be able to pull it off with narrative voice, or with italic thoughts immediately after each piece of dialogue, but we'd really have to see it written to tell you if it works. It feels like it might, but there's no way to tell from the description. Nov 8, 2016 at 12:40

3 Answers 3


I should think that alternating paragraphs should be enough, as long as the tone/ voice that each character uses has been sufficiently different.

It's not too dissimilar to two different people having an extended back and forth dialogue and not including the 'he said', 'she said' parts in order to preserve the flow of the conversation. The reader should be able to distinguish the two if they know the characters well enough already.

Doing it as third person limited will be just that: limited. If you want to do it from both perspectives it will need to be omniscient, particularly if you're delving into their thoughts. If the internal dialogue is distinguished from the rest of the text, with italics for example, it should be quickly clear that they are internal thoughts without having to explicitly state it constantly.

For example:

Is he suspicious? Quick, distract him. "So, Bob, what do you think about the plan to diversify the customer base?" Good, that should throw him off guard.

Don't mention aliens. Don't mention aliens. Don't mention aliens. "Hmm, well I would be worried about losing money by alienating current customers." Dammit Bob.

Why is he mentioning losing money? Does he know about the embezzling? How does he know?

Alice chuckled and ran her hand through her hair, "you know, I suppose there's no reason to worry about it. That type of thing is well above our pay station."

Above our station? Oh Geez, could she be one of them? "Haha, yeah, you're probably right. Anyway, I should probably just keep on marching." Argh! Why did I say marching? It sounds like Martians! Run, just run now before you say anything more stupid.

Alice watched him run awkwardly down the corridor. He's going to tell someone. I need to tell Frank right now.

As long as you throw in the names of the speakers/thinkers every so often, the reader should be able to keep up who the paragraph is focusing on.

  • This was very much the approach I was thinking of, and I think this snippet works. Nov 8, 2016 at 15:50
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    I don't think that snippet works at all. It gets all the information in, but that is not what storytelling is about. What is the reader's vicarious experience here? Where is the verisimilitude? What do you remember from this scene? What is its emotional impact? It is really nothing but an info dump. The job of fiction is not to convey information but to create experience. This does that former but completely fails as the latter. (And the fault is in the technique, not the execution. It is a technique you resort to when you haven't set up the scene properly.)
    – user16226
    Nov 8, 2016 at 16:40
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    @mbakeranalecta it's a half dozen paragraphs, calm down. Few would suggest this method of writing in order for it to be immersive, but it works to portray the misunderstanding from both parties, which as stated in your own answer is difficult to do in a piece of writing. I veered towards writing the example comically as OP mentioned Terry Prachett, but I suppose it's entirely subjective whether or not it's amusing. The question was could the misunderstanding be shown from both sides simultaneously whilst making clear who is speaking and thinking, which I feel the example does. Nov 8, 2016 at 17:11
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    @Mike.C.Ford I stated that it is difficult to portray a misunderstanding in a single scene. But that is not how you do it. To portray a misunderstanding, you first set up the character so that when placed in the situation they will misunderstand, and we know they will misunderstand. (See any episode of Three's Company ever for examples of this technique.) Where both parties are to misunderstand, you simply set up both characters to misunderstand. Tension lies in the delta between what we see and what we know. Your technique puts everything on the surface which creates no tension.
    – user16226
    Nov 8, 2016 at 18:51

The thing about writing is that everything has to be accomplished with a single stream of words. A narrative can only ever be doing one thing at a time, in stark contrast to movies, where many things can be going on on screen simultaneously. On the screen you can create an 18th century ballroom or a 12th century battlefield with a single shot, and have a conversation going on in front of it at the same time, and have the actor's faces tell a different story from their words. In prose, you can't do any of that, you have to layer things in one at a time.

So how do you give the reader the sense that a character's thoughts in a scene differ from their words, or that both characters in the scene are lying to each other? You can't cram it all into one shot like the movies can, so you layer it in. You start by establishing one character's thoughts and motivations, then you show their willingness to lie in support of those goals. Then you do the same for the other character. Then, once they meet, all you have to portray is their actual conversation, because the reader understand what they really want and how they a willing to dissemble to get it, and the kind of ways they talk, and so they recognize what is really going on in the scene even though the scene itself it just the bare up-front conversation.

This, I would suggest, is the fundamental answer to all questions where the writer is struggling to say everything they want to say in a scene. This is fundamental to how storytelling works: is is all in the setup. The whole structure of storytelling is setup and payoff, and if the payoff isn't working it is because the setup didn't do its job. Reworking the payoff scene a hundred times won't change this. You have to go back and fix the setup.


From the way you describe it and the fact that you're asking I'd have to say third person omniscient would achieve what you're trying to accomplish. I also think it makes a difference if it's a short dialogue. If the interaction is short than you might want to try portraying the characters in dialogue but if the interaction is not short, and again, because of the fact that you're asking, I'd go with the description of the dialogue as you suggested yourself.

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