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 clumsy.

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.

Titanic: meta conflict supreme

Last night I was trying to think of stories that start with the meta conflict rather than with a character. Huge disasters that capture the imagination show up again and again as the setting for novels and movies: how many movies deal with the second world war? how many novels?
The loss of the Titanic is a very vivid disaster that (in comparison to a war) lasted a very short time, and it really evoked a huge response from people — it continues to do that. So it makes a natural setting for stories of all kinds, and thus is a good example of starting a story with the meta-conflict. Ship sinks. No big mystery, no suspense. You know the ship is going to sink, how, when, and what the cost will be, how many deaths, etc etc. So how do you make a story out of that?

You build the characters and the conflicts between characters around the apex of the story, the actual sinking of the ship. Most usually people make up fictional passengers. Star crossed lovers; a wife thinking of leaving her husband. An Irish family fleeing poverty for the promise of gold in the streets. The ship going down has to fit into resolving (for good or bad) whatever conflicts you set up for these people. In the end, what goes on between them in the real story. If that’s missing, then all you’ve got is a very graphic depiction of people dying an awful death. That’s not storytelling: that’s voyeurism. That’s a nighmare.

My personal take on the Titanic is that it has been overdone. If you want to build your story around a disaster, there are certainly enough of them out there to work with; why beat the poor Titanic into submission yet again? Unless you can come up with some set of characters in a conflict so absorbing, so perfect, that it has to be told. Of course, somebody has probably tried already. Romeo and Juliet on the Titanic, Madame Bovary on the Titanic, Don Juan on the Titanic.


Don?t you think, though, that there are circumstances under which that kind of voyeurism is ? well, I am loath to use the word ?necessary?, but that is the one that keeps coming to mind. By that I mean that novels written without the depth of characterisation and the traditional conflict-to-resolution process of a good story still have a place in the healing of a society after an event of considerable magnitude.

The one example that springs to mind is the rash of novels — interestingly, in the Young Adult sub-genre– that sprang up after the Ash Wednesday Fires here in Australia, in the early 1980s. The characters weren–t complex at all, and any conflict was of the very predictable man-versus-nature variety, yet I think that these novels provided allowed people to explore their personal experiences of the fires within the context of the quasi-fictional framework of the story. (The difference, I suppose, is that novels of this kind rarely have any kind of longevity: Allan Baille, from memory, has one of the only –Ash Wednesday– novels still in print and readily accessible).

Posted by: Meredith at January 4, 2005 04:11 PM

Meredith, yes. That’s a very good point. One of the crucial functions of storytelling is the way it helps people come to grips with otherwise unbearable facts and events. That’s what horror movies are all about, too, confronting your worst fears, and setting up scenarios whereby you overcome them. Or not.

Posted by: sara at January 4, 2005 04:21 PM

Conflict: An Overview

If the heart of good storytelling is conflict (which I’m going to take as given for the moment), it may be a sensible idea to look at the different ways conflict presents itself.
Almost every story will have conflict on multiple levels: meta conflict (things happening on a grand scale, to everybody); interpersonal conflict (the nature of the connections between the set of characters as a whole); relationship conflict (John and George, Mary and Inez, brother and sister, husband and wife); internal conflict.

Let’s start with meta conflict. You can think about the global conflicts in a given story, the ones in the wider world that impact on all the individuals. The greater conflict can be (and often is) a war: Revolutionary, 1812, Civil, world wars, thirty-years war, the Japanese invasion of China, the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, the US invasion of… well. Let’s stop there.

Other kind of meta conflicts that may impact your characters might be things like natural disasters on a larger or smaller scale (tornados, earthquakes, thunderstorms, the snowstorm that shuts down the airport, an epidemic). A person is often the focus of a meta-conflict. Fonzie comes back to Pleasantville and turns everybody’s life upside down. A new principal who doesn’t believe in evolution at the high school. A long lost aunt leaves a fortune to a squabbling set of sisters. In fact, a stranger or old friend arriving in town is one of the most standard ways of getting a story moving.

Usually stories are hatched at the opposite end of the scale.

internal conflict …relationship conflict… interpersonal conflict…. meta conflict
Using a movie most people are familiar with is a good way to take apart the layers. It’s a Wonderful Life is in fact quite a dark movie (though people don’t seem to ever look at it closely enough to see that) about a man so desperately unhappy that he is driven to the brink of suicide. George Bailey has always wanted one set of things for himself (to be a world traveler, a man of wide experience) and has always been disappointed because he can’t put aside what he sees as basic responsibilities to family and town.
This leads, of course, to relationship conflict. His father dies leaving him to save the family business; his bumbling uncle, dependent on him, makes his work more difficult. He falls in love and is angry at the woman and at himself, because this is another brick in the wall between him and his dreams. But George is not the kind of man who acts on his anger, or who even admits it to himself, so there’s lots of pressure building up. Classic relationship conflicts, which also play out at the community level.

People have expectations: George will help, fix, support, be there. George helps, fixes, supports, and is always there. George is a model for those who have lost their way (the good girl gone bad), and a thorn in the side of the really bad guy (Mr. Potter, the banker with no heart or scruples). The meta conflict, of course, is the second world war, which makes many demands on George and seals his fate once and for all.

Now, is this a story? Not yet. Because in spite of all these points of conflict in George’s life, nothing has happened yet to set off the crisis that will be at the heart of the story. When it does happen, it evokes each of the subsidiary conflicts and brings them, almost simultaneously, to the flash point.

So you might say that writing this story would be just stringing the reader along from conflict to conflict, some little, some big. Some subtle and some so loud and obvious they are impossible to overlook.

I’ll try to approach this in a methodological way. How do you show your readers George’s internal conflicts? What kind of scenes, interactions, observations? What about his relationship with his uncle, his brother, his wife? How about the way the war makes itself felt in his life, not in terms of food stamps, but old hurts and disappointments? Tomorrow I’ll see what I can tease out.

» Layers of Conflict from Greg Writes
Rosina Lippi, who writes as Sara Donati, has posted some insights into conflict, which is the engine that drives every good book. Rosina sees conflict on different levels: internal conflict …relationship conflict… interpersonal conflict…. meta co…

Tracked on January 9, 2005 11:36 AM

[title size=”12″]Comments[/title]Comments

Well, I voted for storytelling for BoB literary for this very reason: I think entries like this are cool, almost like hearing you talk to yourself “out loud.”

This blog is kind of like taiji class, during which my instructor keeps up this kind of stream-of-consciousness talk about the movements, and the breathing — it’s not one-on-one instruction, but listening to him produces this almost-hypnotic quality that improves my practice if I just go with the flow.

So — thanks, sincerely. I hope you keep the blog up for a very long time. I always find something helpful or intriguing here (I’m in the middle of a second-draft revision of magnificent proportions), and visits here help keep me focused on the work.

Posted by: wordlover at January 4, 2005 12:11 PM