Language/Speech: Dialogue

You’ve got some characters who have been working toward a confrontation, and now what? There may be a full fledged argument with flinging of china or knives; there may be a more subtle, but just as bloody conversation. You have to make the scene work by balancing the language aspects of the argument with the situational and the action.

I’ve been thinking about the use of language in conflict, and find I can’t get away from my academic training. Some linguists spend their entire careers studying discourse analysis. (My area of specialization was related, but distinct: critical discourse analysis. Which doesn’t have anything to do with telling people how to talk. Just the opposite.) Deborah Tannen from Georgetown has a great summary of what discourse analysis is all about here, at the Linguistic Society of America website.

The bit about speech acts is especially interesting:

Speech act analysis asks not what form the utterance takes but what it does. Saying “I now pronounce you man and wife” enacts a marriage. Studying speech acts such as complimenting allows discourse analysts to ask what counts as a compliment, who gives compliments to whom, and what other function they can serve. For example, linguists have observed that women are more likely both to give compliments and to get them. There are also cultural differences; in India, politeness requires that if someone compliments one of your possessions, you should offer to give the item as a gift, so complimenting can be a way of asking for things. An Indian woman who had just met her son’s American wife was shocked to hear her new daughter-in-law praise her beautiful saris. She commented, “What kind of girl did he marry? She wants everything!” By comparing how people in different cultures use language, discourse analysts hope to make a contribution to improving cross-cultural understanding.

I’ve said here and you’ve probably heard it from a dozen other people: writing dialogue is the most important and trickiest thing. Any bit of dialogue has to earn its place on the page by filling more than one function. I’ve gone over the topic of how to write dialogue before, but some time ago, so here’s a summary of what I wrote some time ago:

1. Dialogue must never convey information alone. It must accomplish more than one thing at once to earn its keep. It may: characterize, advance the action, provide exposition (introduce theme/characters), provide setting, foreshadow, convey information.

2. Conversely, a line of dialogue shouldn’t do all those things at once because then it will probably slip over the line (or march proudly over the line, better said) into the realm called (so elegantly) info dumping. Here’s an example (it’s fun to make examples of info dumping; but then I’m easily amused):  “But Joan, you went to law school because you adore your mother who has a law degree from Yale and worked for two years in the Eisenhower administration as White House Council.”

That is, never convey backstory in dialogue. Very tacky.

Now, keeping all this in mind, how do you go about writing a confrontational dialogue? How do your people fight on paper? I’m going to set something up here:

You’re writing a scene where George Bailey gets mad at his wife, Mary. He’s really mad about the fact that she’s so nice, which makes it hard to hate her, and then what does he do with all his dissatisfaction about the way his life has turned out? If George were one of my male relatives this contfrontational dialogue would take a certain shape, involving raised voices, direct accusation, and flinging of pots and pans. But this is George Bailey. Good, kind, repressed George. How do you get them into a situation where you can see what’s going on behind the curtain?

This is where speech act theory raises its head in my mind. I think of all the ways we have (every culture has) of saying things indirectly: “gosh I’m cold” may mean “get up off your lazy butt and close the window” or “you never think about anybody but yourself” or “you forgot to take out the garbage last night again, and I’m going to make your life miserable by whining.”

The thing about writing a scene is this: maybe it does just mean that Henry is cold, and nothing more, but if that’s the case: it doesn’t belong on the page. That bit of dialogue hasn’t earned its place.