Dialogue: It’s not just what you say (an exercise)
I recently gave a mini-workshop on dialogue at the Seattle writing center Hugo House. I’ve adapted my teaching notes for this post.
Workshop: It’s Not Just What You Say
Dialogue is much more than what characters say. We’ll look at how people communicate between the lines (or without them), and learn tips and techniques for visualizing and writing specific physical action and body language to carry the conversation.
In stories, as in life, we use language to communicate with each other to get things done, express ourselves and share ourselves.
All these kinds of communication include emotional meaning. But sometimes that meaning isn’t in the words. Our challenge as writers is to make all the layers of meaning — even the unspoken ones — clear in our dialogue.
There are two traps writers often fall into with dialogue.
Trap #1 – Dialogue that is “on the nose.” Characters tell each other exactly what they are thinking, feeling or doing, in a rational, linear fashion. “Jim, you just treated me very disrespectfully and I’m upset and embarrassed right now,” Karen said.
This approach of explaining precisely what’s happening inside us works great in conflict resolution because it’s very clear, but there’s no scary emotion in it: but it rarely works in fiction. In real life, we do not say literally what we mean. We talk about things sideways, or avoid topics, or can’t quite bring ourselves to say what we mean. Sometimes we lie. Sometimes we stay silent.
Trap #2 – Said-bookisms. Sometimes writers use a “literary” word instead of “said” or “asked” as a dialogue tag, in order to try to explain to the reader what the character really feels. “Jim, you were so rude! How could you embarrass me in front of all our friends like that?” Karen complained angrily. This makes sure we know that Karen is angry, but not in a way that we can connect with directly on an emotional level.
If you have to explain to the reader what’s happening in every moment of dialogue by hanging said-bookisms and their adverbial friends on the words, you haven’t fully created the emotional context of the conversation. And emotional context is always the goal — a context so clear that each moment comes alive within the reader.
How do we make meaning come alive for the reader without “explaining”? Here’s a concept that I hope will help. In the workshop I taught, I did the following exercise:
I found a volunteer to ask me, “How are you?”
I looked at them hard for a moment, in silence. I folded my arms. I made my voice flat. I said, “I’m fine.”
Then I asked the class, “Am I really fine?” Everyone said no, you’re angry.
“How do you know?” I asked, and they described for me the way I’d used my voice and body.
We repeated this with “I’m fine” said by someone embarrassed, and someone who is stoned. I didn’t have to tell them how I was feeling — doing the feeling, living it, was more than enough to make the point.
We instantly identify meaning this way, constantly and unconsciously, in every interaction in our daily lives. There’s a neurological basis for this — mirror neurons that fire in your brain both when you do something, and when you see another person do the same thing. In this way, seeing is believing — I see you do something, my brain processes it as if I’m doing it myself so that I understand immediately what it means, and at that moment your experience comes alive inside me. If I see you start to cry, my mirror neurons fire as if I’m about to cry myself — and sometimes I do. Many scientists (although not all) believe that mirror neurons are the neurological basis of empathy and imitative learning.
So one key to effective dialogue is to find specific behaviors to accompany the words that will help the reader see and understand the true emotional meaning of the moment.
- These specific behaviors can include:
- Physical action
- Body language
- Vocal tone
- Facial expression
- Interior thoughts
- Metaphors to describe behavior (“I don’t think this is working. Us,” she said, in the tone of someone getting started on a nasty chore; someone saying, Let’s just get this done.)
- Your job as the writer is to:
- Think about the emotional truth of each moment of dialogue
- Imagine specific behaviors that your character might bring to that moment
- Then make choices about what behaviors to describe. You cannot illustrate every single moment. and you don’t have to. If you pick a good, specific detail, it will ping the reader’s mirror neurons and bring the entire moment alive in his brain.
Your ongoing assignment in your everyday life is to observe yourself and other people, whether they are across the street or right next to you in the checkout line. Decide how they are feeling, what they might be thinking, and then pinpoint the specific cues that led you to that understanding. Every single one of those individual moments, those individual behaviors, is a potential tool for you as a writer. The world is your encyclopedia.
Here’s today’s exercise:
Two people are in a restaurant having a meal together, being served by a third person. Their conversation turns into a breakup. You can write from any point of view, and you decide what relationship is ending (lovers, partners, spouses, friends, family).
The goal is not to finish the scene — the goal is to live in each moment and find the emotional truth, and then decide whether the words speak for themselves, or if you need to find a specific behavior to help convey the meaning.
Post an excerpt of your writing below (please limit to 150 words) if you’d like feedback.
Posted by: Kelley