Monday, June 17, 2013

Dialogue--Big Issues Come Out Over Small Things



We have had interesting discussions in my workshops about the way big issues tend to come out over small things in fictional dialogue. I want to elaborate a bit more on this subject, because it comes up a lot. The example I use in my classes is of a fictional mother and son pulling up to a fast-food drive-through window. The mother thinks the son is gaining weight and she is concerned about his health. The son, being a hungry teenager, wants to order the super-sized meal. As I was saying in class, the mother would usually broach her "agenda" gingerly: "Oh, honey, you aren't really that hungry are you? Why don't you just get the regular size fries." And the son might respond: "Trust me, Mom. I really do want the super-size dinner. I'm hungry."

The point here is that the big issue--the issue of the son's weight and health--tends not to come out in a direct way. This is simply a matter of social convention and of the niceties with which our personal interactions are conducted. People have to live together, right? And so we try to gently nudge each other in the "right direction" (meaning the direction we want them to go), rather than waging a battle at every turn. 

We tend not to start with: "If you keep eating like that, son, you're going to turn into a fat pig." Or even, "Son, I'd like to talk to you if I could. You have been putting on weight, and from now on I think you should think about cutting back on your fast-food consumption." There's likely to be a lot more dancing around the issue before the fictional characters ever get to anything that direct.

The beauty of having a dialogue run in an oblique way like this, is that it also opens up a lot of other interesting possibilities besides the son's health and eating habits that may be brewing under the scene. Such as the amount of control the mother exercises over the son's life, and the son's need to break free and make his own decisions. 

As writers, we need to be alert to these various emerging agendas and to emotional nuances that may be revealed as our dialogue progresses. At first the mother might seem genuinely concerned about the son's health, but then gradually we begin to detect that this concern disguises an overriding controlling nature, and that's really what the son is reacting to. In fact, the son may be overeating to prove a point.

I think of dialogue as having both "global" and "local" weather. The local weather is governed by the immediate agendas of the characters. The son wants a larger meal because he's hungry; the mother wants him to get the smaller meal. However, there's also a "global weather" operating behind the scenes, the "jet stream" if you will. These are the bigger issues of character dynamics and nuance that we can detect developing moment to moment as we write.  

Here we may find larger motivations such as control issues. Or, profound emotional nuances that make our characters seem more human. In our example, we might begin to see the mother's well-meaning attempts to "help," and then her resignation and sadness that her son has rejected her efforts, and her defeat that he's probably turning out all wrong and it's all her fault. We might also see the son's burgeoning rebellion and anger, his need to be his own man, his silent, inflamed victory as he chews through the greasy fries, occasionally glaring at his mother.

Note here all of the different nuanced emotions coming out step by step as the scene runs and the global push and pull between these characters: The attempts to help, resignation, sadness, defeat, rebellion, anger, victory, etc. These feelings won't all come out at once, but must be doled out by the writer as the dialogue runs, slowly revealing to the reader all of the various emotional complexities at play, the true affections, the hard truths, the self-interests of each character. 

In fact, you can think of scene--and specifically of dialogue--as a string of such emotional "moments," strung together like pearls on a string, one cascading into the next. Sometimes these moments will come across naturally as the scene runs, but often we can underscore them by forcing nuances like these into character gestures and facial expressions within the scene. So, for example, at some point in the conversation the mother might sigh with resignation. Or the son might chomp his fries in victory. Use of gestures can be very helpful in pulling more emotional depth out of our scenes.

At the end of our class discussion, someone asked me, "So, do the big issues always have to come out in small ways? Can't they ever come out directly?" Good question. 

I certainly did not mean to suggest that there can never be direct discussion of a big issue between characters, or perhaps even a big fight. Sometimes the mother and son may need to have at each other: "You are turning into a fat pig" and "Get off my back, mom." They just don't usually start out that way.
  

2 comments:

4writersandreaders.com said...

Great post!

Change It Up Editing said...

When beginning writers wonder how to create well-rounded characters, this is where I'll point them. Great post!