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Linguistics and Dialogue, Application

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Sat Dec 03, 2011 5:17 pm
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RacheDrache says...

In the Intro segment, with the help of salt, we examined a bit of the complexity present in everyday human conversation. First, we looked at how one form can have multiple functions, from the expected to the bizarre. “Can you pass salt?” can just be a speaker trying to get the salt and be relatively polite about it, or it can also be a risky roundabout communication to the to-be-salt-giver, or a hint that the food is undersalted/bland/unworthy, a subtle insult.

We then looked at some of the factors that influence what form an utterance takes and mused some about the raw new power of characterization awesomesauce that could soon befall you. We concluded with looking at how multiple forms can serve the same function, at some of the different variations one has at one’s disposable to get the salt through speech.

My original intentions were to spend these next sections detailing the factors that influence the form something takes, but I realized that those explanations were going to be twice again as complex and not necessarily helpful to a writer just looking to get xer feet wet in this world of oeey-gooey dialogue. So, rather than ramble at you for pages and pages and then tell you how to apply what you’ve learned, I’ll do that now.

There are two keywords to remember when you go about writing dialogue. And yes, congratulations for paying attention, they are form and function. They unlock magic.

When you speak, and when anyone speaks, you do so to fulfill some sort of function. Sometimes the reasons are largely practical, sometimes the reasons are largely social. Many times, an utterance needs to serve multiple functions. And, unfortunately, sometimes you can’t figure out a way to fulfill all those functions. Just think on all those times you’ve sat there trying to figure out how best to say something or trying to find the right words. Another way to put it is that, when you say something, you speak with a goal, and this goal is multifaceted more often than not.

The first trick when it comes to dialogue is to first figure out what goal or goals your character has, or what function xe wants his words and actions to fulfill, and how xe renders that into speech. Whether or not the chosen form fulfills the function depends on our aforementioned factors.

One of which is the recipient. After all, we’re talking dialogue here, not monologue. Ever heard that quote about how the best communicators are the best listeners? As far as we’re concerned, it’s true. The people who can hear what is actually said as opposed to what is being said on the surface have the best chance of fulfilling their own conversational goals.

I have a feeling that wasn’t fully clear, so let’s look at the salt again.

“Can you pass the salt?” A asks his sister B. His goal is to get the salt. Underlying, this sentence is “Give me the salt” but his other goals also include being polite because he likes his sister and would be rude to her, etc, etc.

B says, “Sure,” and passes the salt. First, she realizes that A is not asking her if she is capable of passing the salt. She realizes what he’s actually saying, and she responds to that instead of what he’s apparently asking. In this case, her goals also appear to be civility and politeness and cooperation, because she likes her brother back.

Now, “Can you pass the salt?” is such a prevalent form that it’s unlikely B would ever actually interpret this as her brother asking her if she’s capable of passing the salt. A robot, though, might interpret that question literally, or B could be a smart aleck and respond to the surface form.

In third grade, many of my fellow students made the mistake of asking my teacher, “Can I use the bathroom?” To which my teacher responded, “I don’t know, can you?” until we diligently learned to say, “May I use the bathroom?” I doubt our teacher actually thought we were asking her about our ability to use the bathroom (a euphemism in itself).

Those two examples are common plays on social forms. Most people know that “Can you pass the salt?” and “Can I use the bathroom?” aren’t to be taken literally. Other such social niceties exist all over the place, sometimes varying by culture, sometimes causing cultural misunderstandings (in mainstream USAmerican culture, for instance, ‘How are you?’ is sometimes just a formality, an empty question, and responding with a several sentences on how horrible your day was to the cashier is an error.)

So let’s get a little more fictional. We’ll take a classic example but give it our own depth:

A wife walks into the kitchen, where her husband is at the table drinking coffee. She’s wearing a dress. “Does this make me look fat?” she asks. The dress is new, and the husband’s never seen it. Some of her potential goals/intentions?

a) she genuinely wants his honest opinion on it. She’s fine with her weight, but doesn’t want to wear an unflattering dress.
b) she looks darn good in the dress, and knows it. Her goal here is to get him to look up from his coffee and see her gorgeousness, not to get an answer.
c) the dress is a stupid thing for Halloween with a huge fake butt. She wants to make him laugh. Also, she’s been dying to say it since she bought it to get confirmation of her cleverness, so she breaks out the old “Does this make me look fat?” routine.
d) she doesn’t know if she’s fat or if she looks good, and she asks
e) she wants an answer, but the real question is, “Do you still think I’m beautiful?”
f) she wants an answer, but the actual question is, “Do you still love me?”

Mr. Hubby’s turn. Here’s where things get juicy, because he gets his own goals and opinions too. But, again, how effective he is as a speaker and how effective the conversation is depends on how good of a listener he is.

We’ll take Scenario A. The wife asks the question. He hears it and knows she wants his opinion. So he assesses the dress. Maybe his opinion is that it does sit a little funny, and he tells her so. Or his opinion is that she’d look good in a trash bag, and he either tells her so or says, “No.” But maybe he wasn’t paying attention, or maybe he didn’t hear what she was asking, and he assumes she’s really asking something sneaky, that there’s a right answer to this, and he says, “Nope!” even if he meant “yes.” Or maybe he’s really not listening and says something completely irrelevant—“Mm, that’s nice, dear.”

And then Mrs. Wife gets to interpret his interpretation. Let’s say she gets the answer she wants, so she nods. Or she’s pleased she has such an honest and fashion-knowledgable husband. Or he tells her it does make her look fat, and she’s mildly annoyed at first but then grateful. Who knows! Your character.

The more negative goals in the second half might be more interesting to look at. In e), she asks, “Does this dress make me look fat?” but what she really wants to know, regardless of whether she’s conscious of it or not, is whether he still thinks her beautiful.

If he barely looks up or just mumbles an, “Of course not?” or gives the distracted, “Mm, that’s nice, dear,” my guess is that’s not going to be interpreted well. If he looks up and does give it some thought, and really does think it makes her look fat but says, “No” anyway… maybe she believes him or maybe she doesn’t. Again, your characters! Your story! But, maybe he hears that underlying question, and he tells her that she could wear a trash bag and she’d still be the most beautiful woman in the world, and the “awwwws” from the audience ensue. Or maybe such sentiment isn’t his style, and he says, “It wouldn’t matter to me if it did.” Maybe she interprets any of those things as him being a poor, awful listener who doesn’t care even though he does because she’s the one who can’t hear what he’s actually saying!

Infinite options and possibilities exist, my loves. I hope your gears are turning. The next sections are going to go into more depth, more ooey-gooey deliciousness and discuss the sorts of goals/functions present in most conversations, the factors at play. For now, it’s time to take what we’ve learned and make some strategies out of it.

1) Identify what your character is trying to accomplish with what xe says, what functions xe is seeking to fulfill. Also known as, figure out what your character actually means.
2) Identify the form your character chooses to use—what xe actually says.
3) Giggle and cackle maniacally about what the difference or lack thereof says about your character and how you are revealing character without one word of prose!
4) Figure out what the other characters present actually hear .
5) Figure out how this changes the goals of the other characters, and what they want to say in response.
6) Figure out what they actually do say in response.
7) Repeat step 3) as many times as desired.

The more you practice figuring out what your characters mean and how they actually go about expressing it, the more you learn about them, the more tiny differences you begin to notice, the more intricate your dialogue becomes, the more evil cackling you get to do!

Go write.

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

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Wed Dec 28, 2011 5:22 am
AlfredSymon says...

Thanks Rachael! This one really helped me!
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Fri Aug 01, 2014 5:41 am
Holysocks says...

That was once again amazing! Thank you.
I hope it's a good joke because otherwise I'll have got it for nothing...

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