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Thursday, May 31, 2012

Meaning vs. words spoken vs. the reader

People don't say exactly what they mean, and they don't mean exactly what they say. Slang changes, aphorisms abound, and the elephant in the room isn't spoken about. It's miraculous we understand each other at all, sometimes.

It's been said, and it's true, that the only times people speak in detail about something they do regularly (a job, a tradition, etc.) are when there's a newbie learning the ropes or when something has gone wrong with the system. Thus, the tradition of the main character being new to something so that it has to be explained to him and therefore the readers.

Everything else is an "As you know, Bob," even if those words are never used. Some writers are better at hiding it than others, and to some degree we've all been conditioned to accept expository dialogue as necessary... but as writers, we all want to do better.

You need to get information to the reader, and dialogue is one of your tools. You can bring a newbie into an established system, and you can use the disruption of the system as part of your plot. Here are a couple more thoughts/tricks I've found.

Context, context, context
You can use the natural tendency to not mention ordinary things to pique the reader's interest. Here's an off-the-cuff example from real life:

"You getting anything?"

"I was gonna kick it again."


This conversation is usually shouted from one end of my house to the other and ends with someone switching off the cable modem, counting to ten, and turning it back on. And that's really the most important part, because it's not clear dialogue. The reader thrown into it doesn't know what's being talked about, and will glom onto whatever you give them and assume it explains the dialogue.

If I were to write the above dialogue and then send somebody to the fridge to dish up some ice cream, the reader would try to make sense of that. And probably be quite confused.

Coding as a story hook
We all re-define words on the fly. Words pick up particular meanings in the context of any group of people -- your co-workers, your long-term relationship. your family. They become inside jokes, or reference important events in shorthand. And more importantly, once you've defined them you rarely explain that definition to anybody.

This can make coded dialogue powerful if the reader was there when the referenced events happened. But even if the readers don't know what happened, if you make it obvious that there's coding going on the readers will want to know. It's a hook.

How do you make it obvious? Body language, unexpected reactions, things like that. You've seen this done in movies and television, with varying degrees of subtlety, and you've seen it done in real life. How subtle you want to be depends on your readership, the genre, etc. -- this is something you want your beta readers to report back on whether it's working or not.

Bad grammar and dialect
People don't talk good, all the time. People have accents. Regionalisms. They lapse into other languages. This is a tricky area; yes, it will add color and texture and reality, but it also drives some readers straight up the wall. If the reader can't make heads or tails of what the character's saying for pages on end, they lose a reason to keep reading.

I was one of those people who just picked up A Clockwork Orange and plowed through it, language and all. Too stubborn to read the glossary. I would not expect my reader to let me get away with that sort of thing, though, so: moderation. Be careful. Poll your betas.


Torggil said...

Remember also that in person understandability comes in part from body language. This makes person to person communication three dimensional. The printed page's ability to provide this is somewhat limited. The dialogue would be impossible to read is every subconscious cue was related to the reader. Obvious cues are easier- including vocal tone, punctuation for emphasis and singular physical cues like the flicking of hair or the folding of arms. But humans also respond to numerous cues we don't even consciously register- and because we aren't aware of them 99% of the time, the become hard to write in. This forces written dialogue to be somewhat clearer to ensure the author imparts the right knowledge to the reader. So, in short, I agree with you. Now, if only I could get The Wife to communicate more clearly...

Liz said...

I like a little dialect, but a little goes a long way.

As for coding, if I want to make my mother mad, all I have to say is, "Gee, it smells like the ocean." Gets her every time.

L. Blankenship said...

And now I'm curious :D

Aldrea Alien said...

Must be. See how dark it is.

Intonation is probably the hardest part of dialogue to get right on paper without straight up saying it. Yet my father is the proverbial man of few words and can say a number of things with "Indeed." while not altering a muscle. Worse, he can use the same tone for any number of situations.
Can you tell he frustrates me no end?

Nick Wilford said...

Really interesting post. I struggle with dialogue all the time. Of course, a real conversation can range over lots of mundane matters which could be boring in a book. It's a challenge to keep it realistic while also relevant.
And writing body language gestures like folding arms can often seem cliche - it needs to be done well. Bookmarking this!

Jeremy Bates said...

Words can actually be tricky for every writer but finding the balance for the intended audience is a great place to start. Good luck in all your endeavors. It was a really good post.