In Short Story Summer Camp we’ve been talking about the levels at which a conversation operates. You can start with the literal level, at which information is conveyed or exchanged. Almost every verbal exchange operates at this level: you have to talk about something.

But most conversations operate at other levels as well. When you talk to people, you’re trying to do things, not just exchange information. You’re trying to change reality or to create new realities. “I’d like fries with that” is a straightforward attempt to make french fries appear at your table. Persuasion, threats, and begging are three other methods of using words to change external realities.

At another level, we use conversation to change internal realities, for ourselves and for others. We reassure, belittle, console, blame, embolden, intimidate, manipulate, placate… Each of these verbal maneuvers alters emotional states, changes relational dynamics, and/or rearranges status and the balance of power.

Sometimes we’re straightforward about what we’re trying to do at this emotional/relational level: “Cheer up!” “You’re such a loser.” “Here’s how you hurt my feelings…” Very often, however, our attempts to change internal and external realities operate at the level of subtext, while we are purportedly talking about something else. “The dishwasher didn’t get unloaded this morning” is a statement of fact. It might also be a gentle reminder to the person whose job is to unload the dishwasher. It might be an accusation, or an attempt to induce guilt. But here is the rub: even if the speaker thinks his subtext is “gentle reminder,” the listener might hear the subtext “guilt inducement.” The plain, literal meaning of the utterance is easy to agree on, but it has very little bearing on the conversation. The conversation is now about the subtext, which the interlocutors don’t agree on.

Communicating with human beings is largely a matter of seeing through the literal meaning to the subtext. Unfortunately we’re really bad at interpreting one another’s intentions, even though we think we’re really good at it. 

There’s a scene in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead that demonstrates just how valuable this text/subtext dynamic can be for a fiction writer. The book’s narrator, the preacher John Ames, is at odds with his ne’er-do-well godson Jack Boughton, who has wandered back to town.

During a sermon, John Ames makes some off-the-cuff remarks that Jack (who is in the congregation) takes as a personal attack. It hasn’t even occurred to Ames to apply his observations to Jack’s situation until he looks down and sees Jack’s stricken and appalled face.

Here’s what John Ames (the book’s first-person narrator) says about the episode:

That’s one thing that has always been strange about [Jack]. He treats words as if they were actions. He doesn’t listen to the meaning of words, the way other people do. He just decides whether they are hostile, and how hostile they are. he decides whether they threaten him or injure him, and he reacts at that level. If he reads chastisement into anything you say, it’s as if you had taken a shot at him. As if you had nicked his ear.

It’s a little naive of Ames to suggest that “other people” listen to the meaning of words, whereas Jack only pays attention to the other things that are happening in a conversation (threats, hostility, comfort, friendliness, power dynamics, seduction, etc). Everybody pays attention to both the “meaning of the words” and all those other “words-as-action” forces that are at work, and the people in a conversation don’t usually agree on how much attention each level deserves, nor do they usually agree on which actions, exactly, are at play in the “words-as-action” level. Also, people often lie about what they’re trying to do with the words they say.

Let’s say Character A says to Character B, “I saw your car parked outside your ex-girlfriend’s house yesterday evening.” Is that a statement of fact? Well, sure (we will assume that Character A isn’t lying). But this would be a strange interaction indeed if the statement of fact, what John Ames calls “the meaning of the words” were the most important aspect of that utterance. Whatever Character B says next, it will be based on his interpretation of the 90% of the iceberg that is under the surface, not the 10% of the “factual information” that is above the surface (and in this case, to call it 10% is to be generous).

Some questions for the dialogue-writer:

  • Why does Character A share this fact with Character B?
  • Does Character A understand herself why she shared this fact with Character B?
  • What does Character B think Character A is trying to accomplish by sharing this fact?
  • What are the chances that Character B is correct in his assessment of Character A’s motives? (Hint: probably close to 0%).

Here are a few observations from real life that you might find helpful as you write dialogue:

  • It takes a nano-second for Character B to reach a conclusion about why Character A mentioned that she saw his car outside his old girlfriend’s house.
  • In Character B’s mind, this immediate conclusion about Character A’s motives is probably a more important “fact” than the fact that Character A just shared. The conversation at this point is all about the subtext, and not about the exchange of information. Character B doesn’t have to be locked into that initial judgement; in fact, the characters’ changing assessments of one another’s motives may be where the real action is. Instead of thinking about what information gets communicated, maybe think in terms of why characters’ assessment of one another changes: new facts emerge, one person (or both) realize that they’ve been unfair, Character A is afraid of losing Character B, Character B slips up and says something that makes Character A realize that he’s worse than she thought…
  • If Character A says “You have misconstrued my motives,” Character B will almost certainly think he knows better, either because he thinks Character A is lying, or because he thinks Character A doesn’t understand her own motives.
  • There’s a decent chance that Character A doesn’t understand her own motives, but that doesn’t mean Character B understands them better than she does.
  • We human beings almost always interpret our interlocutors’ motives and react accordingly, but we insist that our interlocutors take our every utterance at face value and not ascribe motives to us. So when Character B says “It’s none of your business where my car was yesterday evening,” or “You want an argument? I’ll give you an argument,” or “What, are you spying on me now?” Character A is likely to say, “What are you so upset about? I was merely stating the plain fact that I saw your car outside your ex-girlfriend’s house.” Character A may have stated a plain fact, but she did not merely state a plain fact.

Bearing these principles in mind will improve your dialogue-writing. It might improve your real-world relationships as well.

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