General Writing

Dialog: It’s All About the Relationships

Fictional dialog is full of obstacles. As I suggested in an earlier blog, fictional dialog is not realistic, since it generally omits the hesitations, digressions and repetitions of actual speech. Instead, it creates the illusions of speech by imitating how most people imagine that they speak. Yet even that realization may not be enough to produce effective dialog. Too often, writers fail to think deeply about the structure of a conversation, although the essentials can be summarized as three main points: dialog is about relationships, interactions can be interpreted differently by participants, and conversations can preserve those relationships or alter them.

These insights are not original with me. They are adapted from The Pragmatics of Human Communications, one of the classic studies about how people interact. Written by by Paul Watzlawick, Janet Beavin Bavelas, and Don D. Jackson fifty years ago, it has never been out of print since, and is a standard text in psychology and communication courses. Its subjects include the structure of an ordinary conversation. It does not specifically discuss fiction, but its comments do suggest how to write effective dialog. If your dialog seems flat and lifeless, one reason may be that you are ignoring everything about your dialog except the words themselves. Or, to put the case another way, you are not giving the whole conversation, and that may be why you have trouble writing

Pragmatic’s first insight that writers can borrow is that a conversation is about more than the topic being discussed. For instance, superficially, a mother telling her son to clean his room is a request to perform a common task. However, on another level it can be about the mother’s wish to control her children and her house, and the son’s wish to be more independent. Similarly, two friends recalling a concert might be less about getting seats near the stage and getting the singer’s autograph than reinforcing the friendship. The participants are mostly unaware of this deeper level, but it explains why what might seem like a request to do a simple chore can end in a fight, or nostalgia can make friends feel closer. Dialog is not just about the topic — it’s about the relationship between those involved in the conversation.

As a writer, you may never mention the relationship. Yet understanding its importance can help you shape what each participant says. You know that the mother is aware that her son is growing away from her and on some level wants to slow the process, and that the son feel stifled. You know that the two friends are bonding as they recall their shared past. You know, too, that mother will be surprised when her straightforward request turns into an argument, or the two friends sit back and open another beer.

Another useful observation is that while certain events might occur in a conversation, the participants can interpret them differently — or punctuate them, to use the term in Pragmatics. From the mother’s perspective, she nags because her son ignores her. However, from the son’s perspective, he ignores her because she nags. Otherwise, if he didn’t ignore her, he would get angry with her and they would clash more. But which is right? From a psychiatrist’s or a writer’s point of view, it hardly matters. What matters, and what the writer can use to enhance the dialog, directly or indirectly, is the fact that the difference in opinion exists.

However, from the perspective of your characters, who is correct can matter greatly, and sometimes emerge as the dialog’s topic. As the union folk singer Utah Phillips used to tell his audience, everybody assigns blame in their own best interest. More importantly, if blame is relative, then one of the major privileges in society is who assigns blame. As a result, what punctuation is generally accepted can often be hotly debated. The son in my example, being in a subordinate position, might argue his interpretation as a means to assert his position, while the mother insists on hers in order to maintain her position. This is a point that Pragmatics does not cover, but is a natural extension of its observations: punctuation is often about power.

The third point that writers can take from Pragmatics is that whether the relationship reflected in the dialog changes depends on what the participants do or say. If the mother sees her son’s hostility, she may avoid an argument by softening her demand, or perhaps by giving him a hug. This is the definition of negative feedback — not hostile criticism, but feedback that keeps the relationship more or less as it it. By contrast, if the mother takes offense at the son’s wish for independence, her request might turn into positive feedback, encouraging him to become more surly, until the relationship finds a new balance for better or worse. As a writer, knowing whether the relationship of those talking will stay the same or change can help you know what to write.

What these points come down to is this: when you write dialog, focus on the relationship of the participants as much as the words themselves. Doing so can add realism and tension to your dialog, and, even more importantly, tell you how a conversation will develop.