The triple bumper theory is a screenwriting term for making sure you’re characters aren’t just going around saying exactly what’s on their mind.

Because in life, you don’t go around saying exactly what’s on your mind or exactly how you feel.

That’s why we love poetry and music because they cut to the heart of things with just a few words.

It’s also why it feels odd when characters give heartfelt monologues that are expositional, saying exactly what they’re thinking.

It’s not how it goes in real life. So, why should it be so in fiction?

What you do not want is to make your characters avatars for you, the writer.

Reading a story that’s written with writer’s clairvoyance is no fun because everything falls flat; nothing means anything when your characters know what’s gonna happen in the end.

The last season of Game of Thrones is a good example of how a whole (expensive and well-made) series can be run into the ground by this, but that’s a whole other conversation.

Dialogue is how your characters hide in plain sight.

For you, the writer, there are no narrative consequences, no matter what you make your sock puppets say or do.

But for the characters, the narrative consequences are very real.

They may be your sock puppets, but they’re the main characters in their own lives, and you’re just a distant deity whispering in their dreams.

What they say to other people matters. And because it matters to them, it needs to matter to you.

Good dialogue is where the characters dance around the truth, defend and deflect, misdirect and abruptly change tactics.

Because they’re always protecting someone: themselves or the other person.

It’s not until that character’s climax that you want them to come out and say exactly what they mean.

And even then only after they’ve been pushed and pushed to that turning point.

But that kind of clarity needs to be saved for the personal breakthroughs, not wasted on the earlier stages of the journey.

To learn more about creating that push-and-pull of a good scene, you can sign up for my emails at the bottom of this article and get the famous step-by-step flash fiction writing guide.

To take an example from Dee Rees’ excellent Screenwriters’ Lecture:

SCENE: girl meets girl, and they're in love

The thing that's meant is: "I love you"

(Bump-back 1) 
But you wouldn't say that because there's a risk; you might be rejected, so you back off and say; "I love your sweater."

(Bump-back 2) 
But even that feels too risky, so you back off again and say, "Where'd you buy that sweater?"

(Bump-back 3)
And even that can feel a little too obvious, so you back up again and say, "I hear Topshop is having a sale on sweaters."

The subtext is “I love you” even though one of your characters is babbling about a sweater sale.

But your audience is smart, they get it.

They see that and go, “Oooh! Things are getting exciting!”

As the writer, it’s your job to hide the truth behind this social dance.

And, make no mistake, you need to give your reader a job when you’re writing or they’ll get bored.

So, when you’re writing, what are your characters dancing around?

What are they trying to make happen? Or prevent from happening?

I know there’s this temptation for your characters to simply be your avatars, these great literary heroes that go forth and say all the things we’re too socially afraid to say in real life.

But that doesn’t make for a good narrative.

So, rather than make your characters your champions, understand the very real consequences that they’re using dialogue to protect themselves from.


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