Monday, 22 July 2013

Decoy Dialogue

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. 
If you found this post useful please give it a retweet. Cheers.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Good news? I hope I never hear it at all, let alone phrased in that manner!
We also lose body language to an extent in the written form. I'm sure that is its own post topic though.

Lydia Kang said...

I always struggle with not over-tagging my dialogue. Great post, Moody!

Mary Mary said...

Mood can definitely be a hard thing to gauge in a story. I really like the ones where you're not expecting a certain conversation to come up, but then WHAM! The next thing you know you're involved in this intense scene that you didn't see coming.

mooderino said...

@Alex - body language can often feel a bit clumsy when written down. Not easy to make it read smoothly.

@Lydia - cheers.

@Mary Mary - me too. I've read too many books to be interested in well written but overly familiar scenarios.

walk2write said...

Hi, there! I liked your comment on Lydia Kang's post about copper so I headed over. Nonverbal communication interwoven with dialogue can cover the shades of grey. Or remove it, as the case may be, as in someone twirling fingers around her hair and pulling it out whilst talking in a normal tone to someone annoying over the phone.

J E Oneil said...

It's not just words, it's how you use them :). Like just hearing "Let's talk" makes me cringe, even though there's nothing inherently bad in the words. But smiling or that "Good news" preface changes things.

mooderino said...

@walk2write - the problem with non-verbal stuff is it often becomes very samey after awhile. People raising eyebrows and pursing their lips. In real conversation what I mean tends to be apparent as I say it. Adding lots peripheral stuff makes it a lot slower to read.

@JE - the direct, obvious route tends t be the least interesting.

The Armchair Squid said...

Hi, mooderino! Any interest in joining a bloggers' book club? Here's the link:

Sarah Allen said...

Ya know what, this may be the editing bit I need to fix a scene I'm having a bit of trouble with. I think I'm doing okay making the dialog natural, but it may be that it's too traditional. Hmmm, interesting. Thank you so much for this!

Sarah Allen
(From Sarah, with Joy)

cleemckenziebooks said...

Finding fresh ways to develop characters and scenes is often exactly the acrobatic feat you picture here. It often takes me several tries to get something the way I want it. And sometimes, I have to shred the entire scene and start again because I've come at it in such a way that I have to resort to cliches to get what I want. Grrrr.

Elise Fallson said...

I like sarcasm and use it in real life. The French are great at using sarcastic humor. But it's tricky when trying to use sarcasm in writing. The timing of a remark and the extended pause after delivery is difficult to express on the page unless, it’s blatantly obvious. But in my opinion, sarcasm is best when subtle.

mooderino said...

@Squid - if i only had the time. You can find my views on books (occasionally on Goodreads).

@Sarah - glad to help (possibly).

@lee - certainly easier to fall back on cliche.

@Elise - Are you sure the French aren't just being mean?

Charmaine Clancy said...

I try not to tag my dialogue so this forces me to create individual personality amongst my character in what they say and how they say it.

Great post!

mooderino said...

@Charmaine - cheers.

Elise Fallson said...

@Mood - The French? Mean? Pfft, n'importe quoi.

Alex said...

Great point about not over signalling. For me, the use of adverbs with speech tags (ie: he said imploringly; she asked beseechingly) is a sure sign the writer is killing the dialogue. Convey it through the words you use in the speaking itself, not the heavy-handed language around those words.

Rachna Chhabria said...

Great post Moody. I like to use sarcasm in my dialogue. I sometimes feel I tend to overdo on dialogue tags.

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