Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Language Day: What People Say When They Talk

So, as I've mentioned before, I teach a fiction writing class at the University of Texas Informal Classes program. One of the things you look at when critiquing a story is the dialogue.

One of the mistakes new or inexperienced writers make is to create dialogue that is essentially a Q&A format. So, for example:
"Did you have a good day at work?" she asked.
"It was okay. Nothing much happened," he said. "How about yours?"
"The same. A few meetings, pointless chit chat--the usual."
While this may be an accurate rendition of the brain dead conversation that takes place after a day of slogging it out with your fellow cube monkeys, this isn't the dialogue most people want to read, and it certainly isn't the speech to pay attention to.

A better way to write dialogue is to have the characters talk past each other--essentially having their words slide right over each other, creating friction and heat. To illustrate:

"Did you have a good day at work?" she asked.
"Who cares. I'm here now. What are we having for dinner?"
"Tacos. Did you know Lucas's art teacher called me today?"
"Why? Did he get caught drawing boobs or something?"
When you look at dialogue like this, so much more is revealed. She asks a simple question, but we do not get a simple conversation. Suddenly we see that he would rather stick hot pokers in his eyes than discuss work, and that he's hungry. She isn't concerned with the menu, but brings up their son. He presupposes his kid is in trouble for something, not really paying attention to what she might have to say.

What's the point of all this? Agendas. Every person, at every moment, wants something. Even if he/she doesn't know it. You're desperately hungry, but your spouse wants you to look at the stack of mail. Conflict. You want to ask someone out, but they want someone else. Conflict. Oftentimes, we become so immersed in our own wants and agendas that we are unaware of what other people are saying or doing.

To which I suggest: Listen to the words people use when they talk to you. Not only will you learn a lot about the other person, but you may learn a lot about the way they view you.

I once had someone apologize to me thusly: "I'm sorry you got upset." Look at that carefully. Not, "I'm sorry I upset you," but that you were upset. Almost no responsibility taken there, and not much of an apology, is it? And it's all in how the words are arranged.

When you ask someone how they're doing and they say, "Fine," you know right away whether that's the truth or not. If they're the kind of person who always does this, there's no intimacy there, and they may not ever be willing to tell you much.

Listen also to the conversations around you. Analyze the way people choose their words and try to figure out what each person wants from the conversation. I find that going to coffee shops and listening to people on cell phones is great for this.

By paying attention to what people are really saying to you when they talk, you can get a much better sense of where you stand with people and the sort of folks they are. You may find that people you talk to on a regular basis aren't saying much, or aren't giving you the respect you deserve. If you find this is the case, ask yourself why, and then look at the way you speak to others.

Think of this as an exercise in tuning up your bullshit detector. Once you can recognize it, you can avoid stepping in it and/or generating your own. Conversely, once you recognize (and practice!) genuine, honest speech, and especially the kind that's supportive and generous, you will find your true allies in your quest to find your life's purpose.

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