Monday 9 March 2015

Interesting Chit Chat

Small talk is boring. Characters who waffle on about the weather and the dream they had last night and their favourite toy when they were a kid don’t hold a reader’s attention for very long.

At the same time, characters who enter a scene, get what they want, and leave can make the story feel rushed and sterile.

There are, of course, plenty of books that use the more rushed approach and it can work very well. It makes it much easier to keep the reader hooked and turning pages. Many bestsellers use this approach, although they don’t win many literary awards.

But we’ve all read books that had long passages of seemingly random observations and conversations that not only didn’t read as boring, but actually added to the story. You felt a stronger connection to the character because of the glimpse into their personality. So how did they manage it when your attempts feel like meandering asides and unnecessary tangents? 

Even though the most common advice is to not distract the reader with irrelevant information—if it can be cut, it should be cut—if you follow this to an extreme you can end up with something a little soulless.

In most cases you want to give your characters a little space and time to be people.

The simplest way to do this is to write interesting stuff. If two people are having a chat about nothing in particular, but it happens to be an interesting conversation, it will hold a reader’s attention. For a bit.

Making it funny is also a good way to prevent the reader getting impatient. If they're enjoying the conversation, even if it isn't pushing the story forward (I know, heresy), readers will happily stick with it. But not everyone is a comedian, so this tends to be easier for some than others.

However, there are also a number of other ways to allow characters to express themselves without derailing the narrative or boring the reader.

The first thing to bear in mind is that context changes the value of what people are saying. So two people having a chat over coffee will be viewed very differently if there's a ticking time bomb under the table.

Even though the two conversations (avec bomb/sans bomb) might be equally trivial, knowing there’s going to be an explosion in 30 seconds will completely transform how interested you are in what’s being said.

This requires the reader to know about the bomb. If you only find out there was a bomb when it blows up, the two conversations will be the same (dull).

This is an extreme example, you don’t have to have a life threatening set up to make things interesting, just a pressure to find the answer to a question, in this case will they find out about the bomb before it goes off.

It’s wanting to know the answer that provides the tension, which in turn allows you to delay the reveal with conversation.

If our hero tracks down his biological mother because he wants to find out why she gave him up for adoption, their meeting, although polite and casual, will have an undercurrent of tension as he gets closer to revealing his true reason for wanting to talk to her.

A skilled writer will make this preamble not entirely random. A guy with an agenda can use chit-chat to get information while a writer with an agenda can use chit-chat to establish a mood or a state of mind.

The important thing to remember is that while the reader is waiting for an answer to the question posed by a scene, you have a window where the reader’s attention is fixed.

Of course, you need to make sure the reader actually wants to know the answer.

A character who visits their auntie in the hope of getting hold of her recipe for apple pie isn’t going to appeal to a lot of people. But if she’s planning on stealing the recipe to use in a TV cookery show where the prize is a hundred grand, then the scene takes on an extra frisson.

And it’s not just the raising of the stakes that makes it more interesting, it’s the increased specificity. The more specific the question, the greater the tension, which in turn leads to greater room for manoeuvre for the writer.

So even for the guy confronting his birth mother, an already tense and emotional situation, if he’s discovered that she gave him up when she was married, well off, and already had one kid, that makes his need for an answer all the more interesting for the reader.

As long as the character’s/reader’s need to know is strong enough, what they talk about in the window before they get their answer has a much higher level of engagement for a reader than it would normally have.

This can even be used as a tool to draw the reader further in.

If a cop goes in to a room to interrogate the only guy who knows where the kidnapped heiress is being held, and he starts off talking about the new bathroom he’s having fitted and whether to go with the salmon or the teal, then the reader’s first reaction will be that he must have a reason for going off on this tangent. And wanting to know where he’s going with this approach can be as strong as wanting to know where the heiress is.

Of course, this means he will actually have to have a reason for taking the scenic route that you will have to reveal. If he talks about his decorating options for ten minutes and then beats the crap out of the suspect until he talks, that won’t make much sense. Eventually you get to a point where getting the answer to a question is so imperative that any deviating from that purpose seems unlikely.

But consider if he was talking about the colour of his new bathroom while he was beating the suspect. Psychotic, but not boring.

This is another way to use context to change the value of what a person is saying. A woman telling you how happy she is in her marriage isn’t very interesting. How about a woman telling you the same thing while she’s crying?

When somebody’s actions are at odds with what they’re saying, it immediately provides a question in the reader’s mind. Small talk doesn’t always have to be truth or irrelevance, it can be lies, and lies are very interesting, especially when you know the person is lying but not why.

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


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Talking about the new bathroom while beating him up - I've seen something similar used before. It's like the quiet talk with the mob boss right before he takes that person down.

mooderino said...

@Alex - even the most bland conversation can be quite menacing in the right context.

Patricia Stoltey said...

It's interesting you picked this topic at a time I've been mulling over what makes one author's long narrative passages fascinating while another's might bore me to tears. And for that matter, why a book that bored me one year becomes a favorite read when I try again years later. Such a mystery.

Neurotic Workaholic said...

I get distracted easily, which is why when I read long conversations that don't seem to go anywhere I'll often peek ahead to see if it gets interesting. I know I wouldn't want my own readers to do that; I'd want them to keep reading to find out what happens next.

Marilynn Byerly said...

The comment about the bathroom and the beating made me laugh. Thanks.

Another way to get around the problem of the set up before the important conversation is to say something like--They chatted about the weather, the Panthers' chance at the playoffs, and their annoying boss, then Fred said with studied casualness, "Did you hear they arrested John for Arthur's murder."

LD Masterson said...

How connected the read feels to the character makes a big difference. I will be interested in chit chat with people I like that would bore me with strangers.

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