Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Dialogue Part 4 - The Legal-Weasel

Part 3  of Dialogue is here:

On the occasion of the New Moon in Gemini in June, 2012 -- 28 Deg. Gemini - I posted the following on several social networks:

I'm not so big on Biblical Quotes (too many differing "translations" so you can make it say what you want it to) -- but this is the New Moon in Gemini and today I saw this quote, all about SPEECH (ruled by Gemini/Mercury).
"That which issues from your lips you shall keep and perform"—Deuteronomy 23:24.
We are commanded to carry through that which we pledge to do (or not do).
CHALLENGE: just for today, keep your word. Make every word you speak your Word of Honor -- like Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's St. Germain. Your words are your Magic, your power to change the whole world. Guard them and keep them. Try it, just for one day and see what happens.


On Google+  I got the following comment from another writer Carrie K. Sorensen:
Just this morning I caught myself telling my son I would play puzzles with him later, though I had no real intention to do so. I remember my mom doing this and how much I grew to hate the word "maybe." So I made a point to finish what I was working on, then I went to play puzzles for a half hour. I had fun counting and matching, my son was learning and then happy to play on his own while I went back to my to-do list.

Since I started out so well even before I saw +Jacqueline Lichtenberg's post, I think I'll take up her challenge and keep the ball rolling.

What do you blow off with the word 'maybe?'

That usage of the word "maybe" (meaning "I'm blowing you off") is something writers should study and learn to replicate in dialogue.

Remember dialogue is not speech.  You can't just copy down what people SAY and put it in a script or narrative tale as something a character says.

Dialogue must carry the story forward, (advance the plot, too, in lockstep with the story), depict the character of the speaker, depict the speaker's opinion of the character being spoken to, reveal the surrounding culture, explain the character motivations, and evoke reader-sympathy with the character you want to appear sympathetic.  In addition to all that, dialogue must create for the reader the effect of "this world is real; I know this character in real life; he/she really would say that and mean this instead!"

There are many other functions heaped upon a single word of dialogue, too.

Writing dialogue by conscious intent will more than likely lead to either "writer's block" (not being able to think of the right words and thus writing nothing) or the production of completely useless words that say nothing and bore the reader.

The flow of character-speech has to be smooth as you type it.

Again and again, I keep telling you what I learned from my first writing teacher, Alma Hill, writing is a performing art.  When you sit down at a keyboard or to dictate, you are performing the act of writing, just as a pianist performs Chopin.  Chopin sheet music is to the pianist as the "trope" of your genre (even if you're inventing a genre) is to the writer. 

How do you get that "smooth as you type it" effect on dialogue? 

Same way a pianist gets to concert grade performance of Chopin: by practicing individual kinds of dialogue for specific purposes, thousands of words for the garbage pail.  You go around your daily tasks talking in your head like your character until you wear him like a glove. Actors do this too, in order to perform their art. 

When you perform "writing, " your characters will open their mouths and spew forth real DIALOGUE when you have set up a dynamic plot situation -- a "scene" which has a beginning, middle, and end just like a whole story -- and then pit them against each other.

Dialogue is a game, open combat between characters with opposing agendas (in conflict), and each line must CHANGE SOMETHING in a way the reader can understand.

So that "Legal-Weasel" practice of using the word "maybe" when you mean "no" is a perfect example of good dialogue that happens to appear often in real talk and thus is familiar to the reader.  The character's motivation when that word "maybe" comes up, and a narrative line is added that indicates there's no intention to carry through on that Word of Honor statement of "maybe" -- e.g. to seriously consider doing what you maybe might do -- becomes perfectly clear to the reader.

In Urban Fantasy or Paranormal Romance where the rules of magic apply, a character who says maybe and means no is in for a rough ride down the plot-line somewhere.

Using the word "maybe" to mean "no" is lying.  In magic, lying creates a 'disturbance in the Force' and the turbulence propagates until it hits something and comes back in a wave strong enough to knock the speaker of the lie off their feet.  The knock will not be from an event that would be logically a consequence of the character's action -- but it would be POETIC JUSTICE. 

Here's Part 3 of a series on Poetic Justice in Paranormal Romance stories (with links to other parts):


Another dialogue technique you can use to "manipulate" a character is the same trick that is used in most commercials: The Misleading Statement.

A misleading statement often relies for its trick on the part of speech known as the modals.


Are the modals.

In modern American English speech, the meanings have actually been altered, I suspect because of the usage in commercials (which is legal-eagles altering ordinary speech patterns by force of law).  Where once these words opened the possibility of something -- they now mean that it is highly unlikely or impossible.  We learn that first from our parents saying "maybe" and meaning "no,"  but somehow we keep HOPING and relying on the modal riddled statement to mean "probably will."  

But later, we begin learning "probably won't" would be more accurate.  If a commercial says "this product may reduce cholesterol" - it means "you can't sue us if it doesn't, which we really think it won't do anyway: we just want your money."  If it really would reduce cholesterol, then the commercial would say "will" not "may" and if it doesn't work, you can sue. 

If the company were willing to take that risk and assert "will", then the people who hear the commercial would accept that product.  They can't say "will" because it "might not" work.  But they want you to hear "it will work" when they say "may" -- and to that end, the actor speaking in the commercial uses the exact tone of voice of "will" not the tone in which we always say "may." 

Listen to commercials to learn dialogue.  The words in commercials are dialogue -- where you are one of the actors in the scene, and the scene is mortal combat with words.

That's what I mean by the "Legal Weasel" -- the twist of the meaning into a defensive strategy in verbal combat.

Dialogue is COMBAT (ordinary talking often is not combat) and the rules of gamesmanship apply to dialogue.  In combat, you get what you negotiate, not what you deserve.

Lying by misleading is a combat strategy.  It's just like distraction of the guards by a sexy approach with a wine bottle, so the accomplice can get the prisoner out of jail while the guard gets teased with the promise of sex, but there is no intention or desire to carry through on that promise of sex. 

So the Legal Weasel dialogue technique is to say the exact truth and make it seem like a lie, where the lie is actually what the speaker wants the other character to understand, accept, and act on.

And that kind of "sly manipulation" produces dialogue which is "off the nose" -- see the previous parts of this series on Dialogue for definition of "off the nose."

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

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