Saturday, December 18, 2010

Your dialogue can do more

I've just spent a week working on one conversation.

This is not because I had no time (not that I had a lot, but I did write consistently). It's because for me, conversations are very important. Particularly if the conversation features a character who hasn't had much "screen time" previously, and particularly if that character is one who influences the course of the main story as it goes forward, it's worth giving people a good look - and listen - to her. So each time I came back to work, I started by reading through the conversation so far. Each time, I found places where the dialogue I'd written could accomplish more.

I know many of you write in layers. By this I mean writing one type of thing to get started and then going back to flesh out other elements later. Often, that first thing is dialogue - but just because it's the thing you feel comfortable enough with to write your dialogue first, you shouldn't necessarily leave it. It may be able to do more.

When people speak, we don't ever really say one thing at a time. Think about the conversations you participate in. Everything you say gives extra hints about social context, your intentions, etc., but because in reality you're engulfed in that context, and you hold those intentions, what you notice about what you say is the language that imparts new information. That is to say, the social and other contextual information is evident when we speak in person, so we typically don't notice it unless we are actively trying to determine where another person is "coming from."

In writing, this process can be reversed. Certainly in most cases, dialogue isn't enough to carry a narrative all on its own (plays are different, of course) - I usually add internalizations, actions, body language, and other kinds of cues to any kind of dialogue situation, even if it's just a conversation. However, if you think about it, when you write the subconscious cues that would ordinarily reflect the social context can actually imply the social context. They can imply the character's motives. This is particularly useful if you have a non-point-of-view character on your hands.

Since this may sound vague, and since a lot of it is subconscious anyway, I'll give some before-and-after examples of how I went about adding an extra layer to dialogue.

Tamelera, Version 1
"Maybe I should try to speak with her [Selemei], but since she joined the Cabinet, I'm not sure I can trust her."

This isn't bad. Captures Tamelera's emotional reaction to Selemei, the reason for it, and the proper chronology. Also shows a glimpse of the political structure (Cabinet).

Tamelera, Version2
"Maybe I should try to speak with her [Selemei], but when she took a Cabinet seat she joined the men's side. I'm not sure I can trust her now."

Better. Why? It keeps the earlier details, but also makes clear that Tamelera is aware the Cabinet is dominated by men (which has been pointed out earlier; Selemei is the only woman on the Cabinet). Furthermore, it shows that she thinks of the world as divided into men's and women's sides, which are opposed to one another. This is a major characteristic of hers that I can build on later.

Here's another example.

Recited message, Version 1
"I extend my invitation to you to attend an informal tea and concert at the Club Diamond [...] I expect to see you there."

Recited message, Version 2
"I extend my invitation to you to attend an informal tea and concert at the Club Diamond [...] See you there!"

Here the difference is very small, but important. You may notice that neither one says "please let me know if you're able to come." The message sender wants the recipient to show up at this tea, and in fact has information that could potentially be used to blackmail the recipient into coming. I tried to reflect the attitude of "I could blackmail you" when I first wrote the invitation, but it seemed too dark. It also seemed a bit heavy-handed for the message sender, who is a bit more subtle and refined than that. Thus I decided to change it to "see you there!" which conveys a certain charming excitement, but also relies on the underlying assumption that the recipient will be attending the event.

The next example I think shows how a slight change can give a clearer idea of a character's assumptions and social expectations. It comes from a section where Tamelera's son has told her he's met a girl, but he hasn't told her under what kind of circumstances they met. Here is her comment:

Comment, Version 1
"I'm sure any girl would feel lucky to meet you."

This is certainly true, as her son is quite handsome and a pretty nice kid, too.

Comment, Version 2
"I'm sure any girl would feel lucky to be approached by someone like you."

I decided to use "be approached" to show that Tamelera assumes her son decided to approach the girl - when in fact she was the one who approached him. I decided to use "someone like you" because Tamelera doesn't want to engage emotionally with the idea of her son meeting a girl. Thus she speaks of him as a member of a group of people (people like him). Given that people in this society are primarily defined on the basis of their social standing, it means that girls like to meet boys who are in a good social position, and implies that Tamelera is trying not to imagine the actual people involved.

Here's another example:

Household Keeper, Version 1
"Yes, sir. She will join you as soon as I have your breakfast ready."

Household Keeper, Version 2
"Oh, yes, sir. Join you she will indeed, as soon as I've your breakfast ready."

In this case, the Household Keeper's voice was turning out to be too similar to that of another servant, also in the room at the time. Since he's a recurring character who will be seen more closely in other chapters, I decided to give him a different speech rhythm. This differentiates his speech from that of the other servant, and it also helps me give a sense of the scope of my world, because he sounds like he has a dialect (and later when it's relevant I'll mention that he's from a provincial city).

And one final example:

Surface, Version 1
"Let me tell you about the surface."

Surface, Version 2
"Do you remember what I told you about the surface?"

This sentence is one character bringing up a topic that she's about to discuss with someone else. As you can see, the dialogue will turn out differently depending on whether the characters have met before, and whether they have spoken previously about a particular topic. I realized that the way I phrased this topic opener needed to reflect these characters' shared history - and that it could thereby help me handle backstory. Anyone who sees version two will immediately know that these two people have discussed the surface before, which gives me the opportunity to say a few words about what the content of that communication was. The advantage for me in my revision was that if I hadn't placed their previous conversation as backstory, then their current conversation would have had a lot of ground to cover before I could get to what they really needed to discuss. So not only did the dialogue sound more natural, but this segment of the conversation become significantly shorter and less clunky.

To summarize, dialogue can help you reveal:
  • character attitudes (Tamelera example)
  • character intent (Recited message example)
  • character assumptions and social expectations (Comment example)
  • character differentiation, background and world characteristics (Keeper example)
  • character backstory and personal history (Surface example)
These aren't the only things that dialogue can help you do, but they're the examples that I was working with this week. Your choice of words in dialogue can leave other kinds of clues, like indicating what kind of information is known and which is new, or whether your character feels comfortable or uncomfortable with the situation. It can also help you strengthen the theme of your story. When handled well, it can often help you take some of the information burden off the main portions of the narrative.

It's something to think about.


  1. Interesting examples. Thank you for sharing them. One thing that struck me though in the mother and son conversation is while you were trying to distance the mother from the other actors, it read to me as though she was prejudging the girl he met, and in a negative way. Either that's a layer you just didn't explain, or it's a case of reader 50% which can change the inflection, especially when out of context.

  2. Those are some clear examples for finessing more meaning into a scene. Very helpful.

  3. Margaret, yes, that's one possible interpretation of the mother distancing herself from the people involved. It is a possibility too because if she gets emotionally close to the girl, then she'll get more hurt when her son's relationship with the girl fails, as it is doomed to (or so she believes). So I have no problem with your additional understanding of my tweak!

    Thanks for the compliment, Jaleh. I'm glad you found it helpful.