Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Dialogue Reveals Character Motivation and Social Manipulation

When we speak, our words carry not only meaning, but purpose.  In fiction, each word of dialogue should not only reveal the facts of the situation, but the motives of the speaker.

Complete Workshop and Readings Sign-Up

Finish the sign-ups for fiction presentations and workshop sign-ups.  Please note your presentation dates and the deadlines.  I am a bit of a slow grader, but I do keep track of when assignments have been posted.  On-time posting of online discussions helps allow everyone time to consider the story.


This Week's Readings
It's no coincidence that this week's readings feature characters in conflict with one another.  In particular, we see characters who are on different rungs of the social latter.  In particular, all four stories feature female characters who are struggling to have their needs and fears not only recognized, but addressed.   At the same time, other characters - lonely men and minorities, in these examples - are pushing back, either trying to maintain their positions of power, exert additional control, or establish a sense of immovable pride of place.

For each story, go through and identify the needs of the female protagonists.  Then examine the dialogue.  What do these characters say in order to draw sympathy and/or obedience?  Are they successful?  Are they entirely honest?Do their words necessarily match their own personal feelings?

Writing Dialogue with Purpose
For tonight's homework, the goal is to use dialogue where necessary in order to drive the conversation (and hence the conflict) forward.

So let's consider an example conversation between two classmates.  First, here's what might be said on a normal day:
"Hey, what's up?"

"Oh, hey!  How are you doing?"

"Not too bad.  But hey, I was gonna grab some breakfast.  Wanna come with?"

"Breakfast?  Isn't the cafeteria closed?"

"I was thinking McDonald's."

"I wish I could.  But I have a paper due.  Maybe next time?"

"Okay.  Maybe next time."
Let's look at the tone here.  Overall, it's pretty neutral.  It's morning, these two people know each other, and neither one has said anything particularly conflicted.  But that doesn't mean there isn't conflict.  Let's try scenario one: guy is asking a girl on a date.
He saw Toshiko from across the room.  She was sitting at the table by the globe, twirling the ends of her air while pouring over history notes.  He licked his lips.  He knew how important history was to her.  She said she wanted to major in it.  But he'd been watching the library for her all week, and this was the first he'd seen her.  If he didn't talk to her now, he knew he never would. So he pulled on his backpack and walked over her way. He hoped he looked nonchalant enough. He didn't want her thinking he was coming on to her or something.

"Hey, what's up?"

Tosh looked up at him. Oh, those eyes - he could have drowned his dreams in those eyes.

"Oh, hey!" she said. "How are you doing?"

"Not too bad," he said. Not too bad? What the heck did that mean? What was it he'd wanted to talk with her about? Oh, yeah, the Restoration. It was her favorite historical period, apparently. That's what Sarah had said. But he wasn't sure how much Sarah actually knew about Toshiko. And he knew next to nothing about the British monarchy. Crud.

Maybe he could try a different tack? Maybe take her away from her studies altogether? Now that was a plan.

"But hey," he said, "I was gonna grab some breakfast.  Wanna come with?"

She didn't seem too enthusiastic. Had she already eaten? He was afraid to ask.

"Breakfast?" she asked. "Isn't the cafeteria closed?"

Right. Think fast, think fast. What was open? How far could they walk and still be back in time for Algebra? He pictured the main road outside the school - about the only thing open before noon was the McDonald's.

"I was thinking McDonald's," he said, realizing how dumb that had to sound. He just hoped she wasn't vegan or anything. Sarah said she was a vegan ultra-hippie, but Sarah said that about everyone who dressed in colors other than black.

The girl looked away. "I wish I could," she said. "But I have a paper due.  Maybe next time?"

Next time? Right. As if she'd give him the time of day next time.

"Okay," he said.  "Maybe next time."
It's the exact same dialogue - the only difference is that I've added in action and dialogue tags to reveal the characters.  Notice the difference in tone.  Note, too, that the characters don't reveal much of their thoughts - at least not verbally.  Much of the communication is silent.  More importantly, much of the emotion is masked.  Neither character is entirely honest with the other.

Now break up into small groups.  Rewrite this dialogue from the girl's point of view.  Why does she turn down the offer of McDonald's?  What does she think of the boy?


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