Friday, January 17, 2014

Improving Dialogue: The Abstract Space

In many drawing classes the focus of the lessons are about learning to draw what you actually see, not what your brain tells you you’re seeing. One way that teachers approach this is to have you draw the space around an object, not the object itself.

When I go about improving a section of dialogue or even a character himself, I will often take a deviation on this lesson. I don’t try to change the character or his actual line, but instead focus on the space around him.

I look at what is not being said.

This works in two parts.

Allowing characters to not verbalize every thought makes them more believable, smarter, and more interesting. What a character chooses not to say explains just as much about him as what he actual does vocalize.

Secondly, the other characters’ reactions give an indication to the audience as to how they are supposed to interpret things.

Let’s take sarcasm as an example.

The problem with sarcasm is that it can often be construed as bad dialogue. They are both insincere, often oddly phrased, and make characters appear dumb (when taken seriously). A big issue for writers—even screenwriters and playwrights who will eventually have an actor—is we are suddenly stripped of all tone and body language. In dialogue the author now has to imply moods with less options than normal speech. Sometimes he can get away with outright announcing it—“she said grimly”—But this can be jarring to the reader if he wasn’t already headed in that direction.

So it’s the opening of a book. You have a group of characters marching on a large troll cave. One of them is a woman. The reader knows nothing about the author, the characters, or the story, with no inclination on how good it’s going to be, or who these people are. The conversation goes like this:

The captain huffed under his plate mail, marching up the hill with heavy clinks. He glanced back at his unit over his shoulder. “When we get there, I want no rash decisions. You will stay put until Argon can scout out the place. Do you understand?”

Some of the men groaned. Kalla threw up her arms. “I can’t spend all day doing this! I have a nail appointment to keep!”

The author has three separate assumptions to deal with here in order to make Kalla sarcastic and not shallow. (Of course, he may want shallow, but in this case, we’re saying he doesn’t.) One is that he’s not a good author. Every time a reader picks up a book, she makes a guess about the quality of that book, and that guess dictates her opinion on every one of his creative choices.

(There is a fine line between creativity and being wrong. And usually that line is what the readers want to think.)

If the reader assumes that the author is a good one, she will take Kalla’s lack of severity and interest in inane things as deliberate. It is informing her about the world, the characters and the mood, rather than an error in emotion, or worse, a statement on how stupid the author perceives women to be. If the reader believes the author is going to be bad (or hopes), then she will be more inclined to not commit to interpreting it, (Why bother figuring out what a writer means when he didn’t mean anything?) thus stripping herself of all possible information being delivered, and being bored.

Next, because this character is female, the author will have to deal with two strange assumptions; how the reader sees women, and how the reader thinks the author perceives women.

If the reader reads mostly fantasy novels in which the women are far and few and underdeveloped, she is inclined to assume that this character is the same until proven otherwise. How she takes this line of dialogue comes from what she thinks the author was trying to do. Also, if she is the sort of person to assume that women don’t make jokes (and there are people like that out there), she is more likely to take the sarcasm seriously, thinking the character is just an idiot.

Writing is often all about dealing with assumptions—contradicting them, using them, ignoring them. The author can never predict every conjecture a reader will have, and often times he needs to accept that one beta-reader’s weird notion is not something to worry himself over.

But let’s say that the author is afraid of this line of dialogue making the character sound like a stupid, superficial girl when it is meant to be a joke. What to do?

The usual impulse is to explain it:

“I can’t spend all day doing this! I have a nail appointment to keep!” she said sarcastically.

There is no way a reader can misinterpret it now. But I wouldn’t recommend this approach. I don’t have a problem with adverbs, but I believe that nothing ruins a sarcastic comment like explaining it.

Next option we have what most people call, “Show, don’t tell,” but I call, “Prove it.”

Prove to your audience it’s sarcasm. In life, how do you tell someone is being sarcastic? How do you picture your character speaking that isn’t conveyed in the words?

Sometimes you have to make changes to the image in your mind when doing this. I am inclined to make my characters more dramatic when trying to “prove” something, making their subtle nuances larger, more descriptive. This works for me because I want my characters to be overly dramatic, silly, and sarcastic. When trying for subtly and drama, it can be more difficult. But, here’s an example:

Kalla threw up her arms with a deliberate groan. “I can’t spend all day doing this! I have a nail appointment to keep!”

To me, awareness is a key component to a character’s tone. A huff that Kalla chooses to give is different than one she happened to give. My people tend to be ridiculous by their choice, fully aware of their own exaggeration. If I did want to make her serious, I might say:

Kalla looked at him levelly, her jaw set. “I can’t spend all day doing this, sir. I have a nail appointment to keep.”

Now, she is more subtle, not aware her jaw is setting, and all the explanation points are removed. I added a “sir” to make her more stern. Now, instead of loose and wild, she is tense. By indicating how she is moving adds back in body language that the author so sorely misses.

But she could still be considered sarcastic if I so chose. While describing her facial expressions and tones will tell us how she talks, feels, and who she is, how we have the other characters respond tells the audience how they should interpret things.

This is unfortunate, actually, because it becomes hard for characters to misinterpret anything. We trust that, in fiction, the reaction given is the reaction intended. This is the major difference between “real” conversation and fictional—readers expect characters to always have some layer of psychic connection. Characters deal with less doubt and misunderstanding than we do in real life. They are, if there, deliberate and large-scale.

This means that how ever the “captain” takes her words is probably how the audience will take it, unless the author makes it very evident that he is wrong.

That all being said, it can be used to his advantage.

Kalla looked at him levelly, her jaw set. “I can’t spend all day doing this, sir. I have a nail appointment to keep.”

He snorted. “I’ll bet. If we get this over with in a timely fashion, I’ll join you. But we don’t need to be careless. The fight will be quick, so we can take some time to not be stupid.”

He doesn’t believe her, the audience thinks it’s not true. He makes a joke, the audience is inclined to think she was making a joke.

By playing around in the abstract, the author can leave dialogue intact if so desired. Characters can say exactly the same things in a myriad of tones as long as the author doesn’t just focus on what is actually being said.

Besides, it’s more important to consider what the character isn’t saying.

There are three useful questions to knowing how to fix a line of dialogue:

What did she want to happen after she said it?

What did she think was going to happen?

And why did you, the author, have her say it at all?

Determining a characters motivation for speaking indicates how it should be said. A lot of times authors will write dialogue like the characters think, not like the characters speak; they voice every single thought in their head, not worrying about looking stupid or callous or superficial. Most people can figure things out on their own if they take their time, so conversations are less likely to have a lot of questions. People are often competing, so they aren’t inclined to reveal any weaknesses (like ignorance). And many of us are self-rejecting, so aren’t going to voice what is actually important to us, thinking that it’s wrong to want what we want.

(These are, of course, cultural and personality based censorships, which is interesting to deal with when trying to create a variety of both.)

Instead of having a character speak everything that comes to her mind, consider why she’s speaking, what she hopes will happen, and what she expects to happen. She has too many thoughts to say them all, and she probably wouldn’t want to anyway.

“When we get there, I want no rash decisions. You will stay put until Argon can scout out the place. Do you understand?”

Kalla’s thoughts:

Oh, my God that’s going to take forever.
Argon is so slow.
Why? It’s one stupid troll.
I was planning to be home before dark, and now that’s not going to happen.
If I complain, it’ll just confirm that I am too much of a woman to be here.

She knows that she can’t insult her captain, she doesn’t want to piss off Argon, so she doesn’t say the first three. She won’t want to admit that she feels this is wasting her time. She hopes that he’ll say, “Fine. Let me just take a look then,” but she doesn’t expects him to. Not only that, but then make a commentary on her femininity.

The importance of this dialogue to me as the author would be to illustrate the daily routine of it all—they’re not really scared, just impatient. It also tells us a little bit about Kalla. She is insecure about being a woman and uses humor as a defense mechanism. She is also impatient, and willing to chance her reputation to get what she wants.

Note, this is all being implied to the audience, rather than explained. When “showing” like this, it means that there’s a lot of room for misinterpretation, making it important to bring up these traits several times before the readers will consciously get it.

So, say I don’t like the way I phrased it. By knowing what she wants to happen, by what she expects to happen, how her feelings and mood influence her word choices, I understand better how I can make her dialogue more realistic or interesting. In essence, how to make it what I want it to be.

I say to myself: Kalla is feeling impatient and hostile, but cares what people think of her. She tries not to show her negativity, does not mention she has other plans, and makes a joke about her womanhood.

She says:

“How long is this going to take?” (Re: Will we be back before nightfall?) “I have a nail appointment to keep.” (Re: I know you’ll think I’m asking because I have other plans. And because I’m a woman you think it must be something womanly.”

Now we know that the captain’s reaction should be about what he hopes to happen, what he expects to happen, what kind of person he is, and, if possible, some external plot/situation/thematic information:

“Cram it. We can’t get comfortable. You start putting your guard down you get killed. No mission is a routine.”

The captain expected this kind of response. He used it as a segue into a previously constructed argument versus being taken by surprise and then having to come up with a reason (which usually means questioning himself more). “When you’re in charge, you can be as slapdash as you want. But right now you listen to me.”

In this case, he is unplayful, ignoring her joke altogether. The scene is more hostile than earlier, both of them bigger jerks.


The abstract space determines a lot about the object in question. What the character chooses to say, how she chooses to say it, what she chooses not to say, how aware she is of her own actions, and how other people perceive her gives us opportunity to play around with all kinds of moods, worrying less and less about how well the dialogue is coming out, and more about what we are telling the audience.