Words don’t always mean what the dictionary says they mean. It’s one of the pleasures of speech that we can mix up meanings of words to have completely different intentions, and we can impart that intention with tone, inflection or delivery.
This is something easy to replicate on stage or in movies. Even though a script might have to spell things out, once an actor delivers the line it’s usually obvious.
For novelists this is a little more tricky. Trying to capture the mercurial nature of dialogue on the page can be a lot of work, and often it’s easier to write simple, direct dialogue where people say what they mean in language that has no shades of grey.
Which is fine and suits some stories, but it can also read as simplistic, juvenile writing.
The kind of thing I mean is like the word ‘please’. This has a very definite use, conveying civility, deference and good manners. However, there are a number of other ways to use the word.
An angry guy at work: Will you please shut the fuck up!
An exasperated mother: Oh God, please no more.
A sarcastic teenager: Can you pass the salt, pleeeeease.
And so on. Each use of the word has nothing to do with the original polite intention, but while it’s easy to understand the person’s meaning when you hear the words come out of their mouth in real life, on the page it isn’t always so clear.
Capturing tone without having to spell it out (“Can you pass the salt, pleeeeease,” he said sarcastically) is a skill in itself, and there are many ways to achieve it. Context and set up have a lot to do with it. If you’ve established a character as a mouthy teen, or the situation as an unhappy one for the character, then that goes a long way to putting the reader in the right frame of mind to be able to get what the character means.
But as well as creating language that feels like how people actually talk, there’s an added benefit to using language in a non-traditional manner.
When you have a scene where one character has a specific purpose, let’s say Jack wants to tell his wife he wants a divorce, going into it head on can feel a bit stale and obvious.
If Jack says, “We need to talk,” you already know the kind of scene it’s going to be, even though the specifics may vary. No matter how well you write the scene it’s hard to get away from the feeling you’ve seen it all before.
But if you approach it with a more open view of language (“Darling, good news! Let’s talk.”) then you immediately engage a different part of the reader’s brain.
Because when you don’t use the words the reader is expecting, you end up pulling them into the narrative at a much deeper level. They know he was going to ask for a divorce, but how will he get there from here?
Rather than going all round the houses and adding bits of chit-chat in an attempt to fill out the scene and make it seem more than the standard scene the reader’s used to, simply using language in a more flexible manner can make the old seem new.
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