Six impossible things

What gets said

There are three things to consider when writing dialog: what is said, how it is said, and what the people in the conversation are doing while something is being said. Of the three, the one that seems to get the least attention in most how-to-write books is the first one: what is said, or content. The assumption seems to be that the content – the stuff that the characters are talking about – is too individual, too tied to the specific scene or story or character, to make any useful writing comments about.

And yet the content of dialog is really the most critical part. Conversations are about something, something that is of interest to the people involved (and, presumably, to the reader). What people talk about tells you something about them (five minutes of listening to people at the next table in a coffee shop or airport lounge will demonstrate this). It is therefore unsurprising that readers will react differently to three characters engaged in a discussion of the previous night’s major league baseball game than to three characters discussing how best to dispose of a recently-deceased body.

Part of the reason the content of a dialog passage gets so little attention is that much of the content is tied to the story. The reader is not eavesdropping on random conversations on a bus; he/she is reading a novel (or short story) in which most of the conversations are relevant to the story in some way. The hero has not bumped into the blacksmith by accident (which might, in real life, result in a conversation about the weather, sports, and how’s the family); the hero has sought out the blacksmith in order to get his chain mail repaired.

Dialog topics in fiction are not random. The writer has the whole day’s worth of conversations from which to choose, so the reader assumes that if she/he has chosen to provide the argument about whether to have eggs or pancakes for breakfast, that dialog is just as relevant as the discussion of how to get the spaceship out of hock or the one about where the villain is likely to strike next.

On the other hand, every social group, every culture, and every person has a set of topics that are Not Discussed In Public because they are impolite, vulgar, liable to result in fistfights, or taboo for some other reason. This is a bit elastic – there are always people who didn’t get the memo on these topics for whatever reason. Maybe they’re from a different culture/social group with different conversational taboos; maybe they just delight in causing trouble. So it is possible to have one or two characters who insist on talking about socially taboo subjects at the sort of stiffly polite function where such topics are generally forbidden…but if all one’s characters engage with a topic, everywhere and all the time, then it’s obviously not “forbidden.”

Pretty much anything can be a taboo subject; common ones are politics, sex, religion, and money. Some cultures ban bragging or disrespecting certain people. And you also have the question of what topics a particular character is willing (or unwilling) to talk about. It is possible to get quite a lot of mileage out of characters’ differing ideas about what is a suitable topic for conversation in public (or in private, or at all).

There are also topics that usually work better in narrative than in dialog. So the first thing to think about in a dialog scene is, would people talk about this subject at all? If your main character works is a fashion designer, lots of very specific conversations describing clothes and their pros and cons may come with the territory; if your main character is a police detective or a barbarian swordsman, not so much.

The second question to ask yourself is, would people talk about this subject here in this place (at this crowded coffee shop, in this library, in front of those other folks)? Sometimes, this is a matter of common sense; planning a kidnapping in a public place where people are likely to overhear is dumb. Other times, it’s a cultural nobody-talks-about-that-in-public thing (or, conversely, the social we-need-a-chaperone-present-if-we’re-going-to-talk-about-that thing).

The third thing to think about is would each of these people talk about this subject under their current circumstances? Maybe two of them would, but the third wouldn’t, or one desperately wants to talk right here and right now, but the other two really don’t.

And the final thing to think about is, do they have to talk about this right here, right now, regardless of whether they normally would or not? If there is a bomb sitting in front of your characters, ticking down to an explosion, they pretty much have to talk about how to disarm the thing, regardless of other circumstances. (OK, if they’re bound and gagged, they can’t talk…but then it’s not a dialog scene, is it?)

Each character’s attitude toward the topic will affect how the dialog flows. If A considers high fashion a suitable topic for a frivolous chat, while to B it is serious business, and to C it is intensely boring, their contributions to the conversation will be significantly different than they would be if all of them are competitors in the fashion business, or two are serious and one is bored.

Next week, I’m going to talk about the “how things are said” part.

  1. Not sure if this is a why or a how, but what about reported dialog? Something like: He explained his idea, with references; she nodded along, following his logic if not the more esoteric details of the theory behind it.

    I tend to like this sort of thing, because it allows me to have a highly knowledgeable, mildly pedantic character, without having to make up a whole bunch of technobabble. (Or magibabble; works in fantasy, too.) Okay, yes, it is a writerly cop-out — but does the reader really want to read three sesquipedalian paragraphs about the Principles of Seasonal Balance in Temperature-Related Spellcasting, including references to suitable authorities?

    • Caesar wrote the entire _Gallic Wars_ in that style, along with talking about himself in the third person. It was called _oratio obliqua._ Sp there’s precedent for it, but you still want to use it selectively, in order to avoid telling a story twice (first to the reader, then to the other character). I’m having to be careful with this at present, because I keep having A report something to Protagonist, who then has to tell B and C. And D’s going to start reporting in any minute….

      • Sounds like I’m in good company, then. 😉 And sure, it shouldn’t be overused, but that goes for pretty much anything in writing.

        (I think that was supposed to be “a what or a how”, btw. Oh, for the ability to edit comments….)

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