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Linguistics and Dialogue, Intro

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Sun Nov 13, 2011 10:23 am
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RacheDrache says...

Linguistics and Dialogue, Intro

I’m beginning with this segment because it’s my current favorite. It also requires the least amount of thinking on my part, which is always nice. The majority of what I’m going to talk about here falls under the category of “pragmatics”—so if you use your university or school’s electronic database to look up articles, this is a good keyword—and that basically means “language in use” as opposed to language in theory.

We begin your linguistic crash course in dialogue and conversation with the example I’ve had in four different classes on two different continents:

Can you pass the salt?

Raaaaachaeeeeel,” you say, “I wanted to learn how to write super-snappy, deep, character-revealing dialogue that’s deliciously tense and dripping with ooey goodness, not learn how my characters ought to have polite dinner conversation!”

Well, my friend, you’re underestimating the complexity of even seemingly harmless conversation.

So, again:

Can you pass the salt?

We’ll assume a probable situation of two participants, A and B. A is the one speaking, and B is the recipient. For our context, we’ll say the two are sitting at the dinner table, eating. There are two other participants present, C and D, also at the table.

A and B are siblings. C and D are the parents. The salt is near B, out of A’s reach, and A wants the salt to season his food.

“Can you pass the salt?” A asks B, and B hands him the salt. Friendly family chatter continues.

On the surface, not complicated at all. But underneath?

What A really said here was, “Pass the salt.” He was not inquiring as to whether his sister was capable of passing the salt. And nor did B interpret this as her brother asking if she was capable of passing the salt; she heard the underlying command and passed the salt

The juicy bit comes with why A chose “Can you pass the salt?” over another form and why B chose to respond to the underlying command positively.

Perhaps this is just one big happy family, and A and B are just two happy siblings, and A would never say something so rudely direct as “Pass the salt” and B would never refuse to hand over something as silly as the salt.

But, perhaps, if parents C and D weren’t present, this conversation would have happened differently. Perhaps A and B only get along when their parents are watching, and A only said, “Can I have the salt?” so his parents wouldn’t get mad, and B only passed the salt so they wouldn’t get mad either.

Or maybe it’s not so equal, and A really did just want the salt and wasn’t trying to be mean, but B is a mean sibling and only passed the salt without comment because D would have given her a lecture and she just wasn’t feeling it today.

Maybe this isn’t such a happy family at all, and C and D are awful parents, and before A asked for the salt, they were eating in hanging silence. Maybe A’s food didn’t need salt at all, but he asked for it as a way to break the silence, or as a way to let his sister know that it’s okay and that she shouldn’t burst into tears at the table.

And a thousand other variations are possible. This gives us as nice an introduction as any, though, to discuss the variables upon which conversation and therefore dialogue can, well, vary:

1) Intention of the speaker
2) Goals of all participants
3) Power structure between participants
4) Degree of competence of the participants
5) Relationship between speaker and receiver
6) Presence of an audience
7) Social roles of each participant
8) Social and cultural situation
9) Personality of each character
10) So much more

These factors are at work even in the most basic of conversation. Don’t forget that. It’s in your favor if you don’t, because it means you can make even the most banal conversation between your characters drip with dramatic deliciousness. If you really start paying attention to what people are actually saying in their speech, and how they go about saying it (or how they attempt to), and you put that to work in your dialogue, I reckon you’ll be able to make your reader’s little heart quicken just because your villain commented on the weather.

Because, if your villain commented on the weather, something awful is surely going to happen, and the reader knows that not because you spilled it out in exposition chapters before but because the reader has been subconsciously absorbed how the villain usually speaks, and this isn’t it. (

And because you’ll be taught well, Young Padawan, you would’t even think about having your character say, “Why is he talking about the weather?” because you’ll respect your reader’s intelligence and have confidence in your dialogue, right?)

The end goal here is your characterization skyrockets—you see from the list how much dialogue depends on characters?—and that you never need a dialogue tag or sentences of exposition of explanation again. Your character can’t speak without saying something about him or herself and his or her relation to the world and the other people in it. Thus, write what your characters say, not what you think they’d say.

That all said, it’s time to get back to business. We’re going to return to the salt for the rest of this overview, and look at a goal A could have had, several different ways he could have gone about expressing it, several reactions B could have had, and what it all means.

A’s goal: getting the salt:
“Can you pass the salt?”
“Could you pass the salt?”
“Can I get the salt?”
“Could I get the salt?”
“Can I have the salt?”
“Would it kill you to pass the salt?”
“Pass the salt, please.”
“Pass the salt.”
“Hey idiot, pass the salt.”
“I need the salt.”
“I think this needs some salt.”
“I believe this is sodium deficient.”
“Um, B, could you pass the salt, if you don’t mind?”

B’s reaction: positive, in terms of A getting the salt
Passes the salt, no comment
Passes the salt with a “Of course.”
Passes the salt with a “You’re welcome.”
Passes the salt with a glare
Passes the salt with a “Do you want me to pass the salt then?”
Passes the salt with a grin and a “Nope!”

B’s reaction: negative, no salt for A
Doesn’t pass the salt, no comment
Doesn’t pass the salt, with glare.
“Ask me nicely.”
“Well, geez, that was rude.”

You get the point?

A asks for something. B can either accept or deny the request. B’s in power because she has the salt (A getting up and grabbing it himself would be another option to contemplate).

A can overtly assert power over B (“Hey, idiot, pass the salt”) despite that, and B can admit submission, at least in this context, by passing the salt. (Could be that this is just playful banter, not an intended insult. You see how the form of something means relatively little?)

Or A can overtly assert power over B (“Hey, idiot, pass the salt”, or even “Pass the salt!”) and B can maintain power and refuse to be submissive.

Or maybe A, not wanting to admit his own lack of power as lacker of the salt, hedges around with a “I think that this needs salt” in hopes that B will get the hint.

Or maybe A is fully aware of his lowly position, and probes cautiously with “Um, B, could you please pass the salt, please?”

Such a dramatic conversation about salt alone is unlikely, but everything builds on a prior power structure, their prior relations, the presence of others watching, how the character just feels that day. There’s no fixed form to meaning. The next sections won’t be telling you that this one surface form means this or that. That’d be silly. For now, though, I hope you’ve got an idea of just how sticky and delicious even seemingly trivial conversation can be, and how you might use it to your advantage. Most of all, I hope you go write!

I don't fangirl. I fandragon.

Have you thanked a teacher lately? You should. Their bladder control alone is legend.

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Thu Nov 24, 2011 2:18 pm
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ultraviolet says...

Rachey, how do you manage to amaze me every time?
"Blah blah blah. You feel trapped in your life. Here is what I am hearing: happiness isn't worth any inconvenience."


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Thu Nov 24, 2011 3:32 pm
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Blues says...

I love this! What a brilliant way to get lots of characterization, I wondered how. Thanks for the great article!

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Fri Aug 01, 2014 5:21 am
Holysocks says...

O.O Thank you, so freakin' much for writing this. This was so helpful.
100% autistic

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Thu Jan 08, 2015 1:19 am
Poseidon says...

Very helpful Plz keep writing
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