Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Dialogue Part 9: Depicting Culture With Colloquialisms by Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Dialogue Part 9
 Depicting Culture With Colloquialisms
Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Here is a list of previous posts in the Dialogue series:
That post has been updated to include the previous 8 parts of Dialogue.

And here is Part 3 of the Depicting series with links to previous parts:

You should also keep in mind the Cliche


And Misnomers:



Here we are building on points made in those prior posts.

Remember from earlier discussions of Dialogue that Dialogue is not "recorded speech."

You can't make your characters sound realistic by using real speech.  Yet without studying real speech with the ear of an outsider, you can't write realistic dialogue.  That makes dialogue very much an art form, ...

Here are more prior posts related to dialogue and art:



...but as in all arts, there are some easy rules to get you started.

Have you ever noticed how a politician using a teleprompter reading a speech delivers the words smoothly, without searching for expressions, or apparently self-editing as he talks?  This is the season rich in examples of speeches and "hot-mike" moments.  Go find some videos of speeches - doesn't matter for or against what agenda, just listen to the intonation and watch for stumbles.

Reading from a teleprompter is a sure giveaway that the speaker is not saying his/her own words (even if they write their own speeches!) and therefore raises the question of whether the speaker actually understands the meaning of the words written by an erudite speech-writer.  Also there's the question of whether, if understood, the words said aloud are actually the truth. 

Here is a recent non-fiction book by an eminent champion of consumer rights.  This book depicts (in non-fiction) a situation that would make a wondrous "conspiracy theory" to set on an Alien world sizzling with debate on whether to make First Contact with Earth, just to tap our resources. 

Note the book is about politicians saying one thing to voters, and another behind the scenes, their motives for doing that, and the counter-strike building against it.

Here is the blurb from Amazon:
Ralph Nader has fought for over fifty years on behalf of American citizens against the reckless influence of corporations and their government patrons on our society. Now he ramps up the fight and makes a persuasive case that Americans are not powerless. In Unstoppable, he explores the emerging political alignment of the Left and the Right against converging corporate-government tyranny.

Large segments from the progressive, conservative, and libertarian political camps find themselves aligned in opposition to the destruction of civil liberties, the economically draining corporate welfare state, the relentless perpetuation of America’s wars, sovereignty-shredding trade agreements, and the unpunished crimes of Wall Street against Main Street. Nader shows how Left-Right coalitions can prevail over the corporate state and crony capitalism.
---------end quote-------

Oddly, Glen Beck predicted (reading from a teleprompter) that the "Left" and the "Right" would form a coalition on common grounds.  Do you think Nader would ever appear on Beck's show?  Hmmmm. 

Dialogue in novels, done as printed text, generally does seem smooth, rehearsed just as if we all read from a teleprompter saying things we don't exactly mean for reasons of self-interest not so different from those depicted in Nader's newest book.

One of the main dialogue tools a writer can draw on to depict dialogue that is emotionally truthful, that is up-front and completely honest, is to depict speech-stumbles, adding in the uh and ummm and self-conscious chuckles or long hesitations as a word is carefully chosen. 

I used the silences while carefully choosing a word to depict the Alien From Outer Space in my Vampire Romance, Those of My Blood.

BTW "You know" is not usually added in written dialogue, even though in real speech you hear that (and the equivalent) a lot. 

Too much of that choppy dialogue and the page just does not scan correctly for a reader, so it's a tool to use sparingly.  I use it way too much, but my novels are emotion driven, relationship driven -- and often the characters are driven by a need to be perfectly honest and accurate.  (or they are very bad liars)

Now, why is it that stumbling and searching for a word does not seem "right" to readers when there is too much of it?  And how much is too much?

In real life, we really do exchange short utterances in smooth, flowing words.

How can that be? 


In real life dialogue, most of our utterances are well-rehearsed! 

There is such a thing as routine speech.

There are words and phrases we repeat endlessly (which makes for dull reading).  We speak to each other in colloquialisms, set phrases and on-message talking points. 

Consider your routine exchanges with check-out clerks, appointment secretaries, and the service people who come to your house to fix an appliance, fix the plumbing, whatever.  Foreign Language Guidebooks are replete with this kind of routine-speech all indexed.  There are phrases you memorize and just roll off the tip of your tongue, brain barely engaged.  We are used to communicating that way. 

That's why politicians who have rehearsed talking points can fool us so easily -- they sound like they are just talking the same way we talk.

So when you write dialogue, remember to use a "smooth" style (without um and ah and you-know) when the exchange is depicting routine civil discourse, polite conversation, Guidebook Conversation. 

But when your character goes off-script, loses his mental teleprompter, he/she can get tongue-tied and stumble -- or try to choose words carefully.  This is the typical teenager having the first adult conversation with a potential sex partner.

Our everyday routine speech is Setting Dependent and Relationship Dependent and Situation Dependent.

And so our written dialogue can be used to depict Setting, Relationship and Situation -- as well as Culture, social and business expectations.

Since we have these speech-patterns in real life that can be used only in certain Settings, Relationships, Situations, etc. when we read stories with dialogue, we automatically decode the dialogue to infer what Setting, Relationship or Situation lies behind the characters.

Thus a writer has a tool to convey loads of information about a Culture that the character who is speaking would not consciously know about himself.  This tool works wonderfully well for depicting Alien Cultures. 

To make a story "accessible" to a modern Earth audience, you lead the reader to decode the dialogue into data about the culture just as they would if overhearing a conversation in an elevator.

What the reader figures out for him/herself about the culture of the Aliens will make the Aliens seem real, make their characters seem like old friends.  What you TELL the reader about the Aliens will go in one eye and out the other -- with a shrug and a "who cares?"

So give your reader Dialogue that DEPICTS the Alien Culture without explaining that Culture to them in so many words. 

Here's the book that I keep referring you to for a lesson in where, inside your head, you keep your Culture.

Humans are largely unaware that they have a Culture (or two) driving their behavior.  Most don't even know what Culture is, where it comes from, or what it can accomplish in a cohesive society.  We've discussed this in previous posts.  Your reader's ignorance is your tool for convincing them your Alien Romance is real.  But that will only work if you can identify your own cultural drivers.

Here let's take a stripped down, bare bones example of dialogue that depicts a culture. 

Called into the boss's office on Monday morning, an IT manager gently closes the door behind him.

The boss sits at his desk making notes on his Project Management calendar.

---------SAMPLE DIALOGUE--------

"Hi, Jim!" the Boss said.

"Good Morning.  You said to be here 10:00 AM?"

"Yes, you're only a little late.  Tell me, how is the Network Upgrade project going?"

"Those lost data files are still lost, but the Network is now running."

"Great!  That's a good start.  So when will you have the missing data recovered?"

"I've had a crew on it over the whole weekend.  We've done all we can, but the data is just gone."

"You've done all you can?  You personally?  And the data is gone forever?"

"Yes, I've been on it with them-"

"And you've done everything possible?" 

"Definitely, everything possible." 

"That's your excuse? You've done all you can and everything possible?  All of you?"

"Well, yes, we'd never give you less than our best."

"I see.  Then, I've done all I can and everything possible, too, and there's just no way to recover from this - so you and your whole crew are fired, effective at Noon today." 

The boss hits SEND on his keyboard.  "Pick up your severance pay on the way out."

------------END SAMPLE DIALOGUE----------

In our everyday reality, this IT professional and his team would NOT be fired for "doing all they can" and having the results be less than acceptable.

In our current culture, once you have maxed out your abilities (so we are taught in school these days) you are thereupon excused from all further effort. 

Under no circumstances may you exceed your current limitations lest you "show up" some other student or become an Elite, or get the idea you are "superior" because you accomplished something nobody else could.

In fact, if you do dare to step over a limit, like say "Common Core" standards, and do more than is required, you get slapped down hard.  You are lectured that you must not read ahead in the textbook, you must not "color outside the lines" and may not use sources you find in libraries or online to contradict what it says in the textbook.

The reason, of course, is the way Teachers now do not do their Degree work in what they teach, but in "Education" -- so in reality, the teacher doesn't know enough about the subject to write the textbook, but is considered qualified to teach that textbook's content. 

So if a student brings in facts that dispute the book, the teacher will be made to look bad in front of the other students for the lack of a coherent answer.  A Common Core Teacher is not allowed to teach the class that the textbook is wrong, even if it is and the Teacher knows that.   

Heated argument and debate with Teachers over errors in textbooks was once encouraged in schools, but that leads to heated argument and debate with Supervisors at work (and real strife in Situations such as Nader postulates in his book).  If Promotion has not been on merit alone, the Supervisor then looks bad. 

A) Do a snatch of Dialogue between such an overwhelmed Teacher and a know-it-all Student on the pattern of what I showed you above.  Show the cultural paradigm just by stripped bare lines of dialogue, no description, no he-said/she-said, no narrative, no business for actors to convey emotion.  Just dialogue.  Try it. 

B) Now do a similar exchange between the Parent of a child so accused of insubordination and the overwhelmed Teacher.

C) Do an exchange between the Teacher and the Principal, like the IT Head and the Boss above.

D) Do all three snatches described in A, B, and C, but set on an Alien Planet amidst an Alien culture. (yes, you may launch a Romance between the Teacher and the Parent of the Student.)  Do it all with Dialogue alone.  This is a standard text-book exercise in Professional Radio Writing for Drama shows and you find it in Write For Television books, too.

Depicting such a situation, a writer can convey all manner of abstract facts about the Ancient History of the Civilization (human or non) of the story without a word of narrative or exposition.

The result of today's massive shift in school culture is adults who have become a different kind of reader. 

That gives rise to a generation-gap you, the writer, must straddle.  You must entertain the reader who accepts the idea that one merely has to do all one can, or everything possible, and then can give up without incurring penalty or blame.  With the same words, you must entertain the reader who just assumes that any limitation the characters encounter is there to be transcended, overcome, destroyed, blasted, upset, dissolved, or something else.

Here is the latest in a long series by Simon R. Green that depicts the team of a warrior and a witch combining talents to achieve the Impossible -- several times a novel.  It is about the Drood family, and is part of the Tales of The Nightside but set in our regular world where secret battles go on every day. (shades of Ralph Nader!)

Green does 5-star worthy novels, but the latest few could use a lot of blue-pencil editing to remove dialogue loops.  Green's style, however, is strongly evocative of Gini Koch's ALIEN series, which also presents us with an indomitable pair who will invent, create, out-think, or out-maneuver any threat. When "all I can" isn't enough, they violate rules, break laws, smash barriers, and acquire a much larger inventory of things they can do.  These characters live without limits set by others -- yet have an admirable set of limits they construct within themselves.  They do not abuse power simply because they can. 

Remember, in current culture, giving up quietly leads to promotion, or "failing upward" or what used to be called being "bumped upstairs."   

Science Fiction was founded by people raised to be the sort who, when presented with a problem that will not yield to "all one can" simply does something one CANnot -- one exceeds one's personal, internal limitations. 

Likewise, once "all possible" solutions are exhausted, one INVENTS a new solution (or three).  Green and Koch give us current novels depicting that sort of character. 

The lack of that unlimited attitude was a massive flaw in the TV Series Beauty And The Beast -- not the current one, but the older one about a culture in the tunnels under New York where an Alien from Outer Space was welcomed, but fell in love with a woman from Above.

The TV writers set up a situation which could have been changed by doing something that CANnot be done, and set as the premise for the show that the Situation could not be changed. 

The show was about living with inevitable heartbreak - and the short-lived series spawned more fanfic than you can imagine.  Fans hammered at adding things and inventing things to resolve this Situation where two lovers could not inhabit "the same world."  Every permutation and combination of solutions to bring the two into the same world for an HEA (or to kill off one) was written.  A lot of it is now online, but most was done only on paper.

So if the producers wanted to engage Science Fiction fans, they hit on the right combination -- just tell the fans "It is impossible" and watch the fans flood the world with solutions that are in fact possible -- or change the world to fix the Situation.

Science Fiction was founded by folks with the mindset of non-conformists, defying rules and limits, and creating inventions on the fly to solve problems as they came up.  That's what fanfic is, and where it came from -- the intrinsic thrust toward breaking barriers, doing the impossible, changing the very nature of Reality so it accommodates Love better -- fans not allowing Hollywood to prevent them from having their stories.  Ralph Nader would be well advised to study fandom for a model of how to fight the Big Corporations conjoined to Washington.  When Star Trek was cancelled (the first and second times) fandom prevailed over big business and got the animated Series, the films, and then more TV Series, and now more films.

No Science Fiction Hero ever yielded to an opponent after doing just "all he can" or "all possible." 

Literary scholars insist that audiences want to "identify with" fictional characters.  To do that, the audience requires that the characters have something in common with the audience.  For Science Fiction, that common-characteristic is the refusal to stop at "all I can" and to do what it takes to solve the problem or change the Situation. 

In the 1970's, concurrent with Star Trek, we had the Women's Movement.  Today we have female Hero characters with that indomitable attitude in both Romance and Science Fiction.

"Bosses" in science fiction stories expected and required their hirelings to do things that the hireling could not do (at the outset of the story) -- and to defy the Possible and accomplish the previously Impossible thus establishing new standards for what could be done, and re-defining the nature of Reality.

Doing the Impossible just takes a little longer, and might include cost-overruns.

Our current youngest readership does not expect such performance from the Hero of the story, and would not despise someone who failed to accomplish something beyond their ability. 

How can you blame someone for not-doing what they can't do? 

Robert A. Heinlein had a saying to the effect that failing is a capital offense -- you fail; you die.

Thus the snatch of dialogue above delivers a SURPRISE ENDING that depicts a culture alien to many modern readers. 

Add a few sentences to that dialogue snatch to indicate how shocked the employee was to be fired (if he was) and what the Boss did next about the unsolved problem of the lost data.

Which one is the Hero (or which is more Heroic) would be depicted by what each chose to do next. 

If the IT professional above were female and the boss male (or vice versa) you could end up with a really hot Romance.  After all, firing a woman who can't do the impossible for failing to do the impossible is going to get the company sued, no?

Jacqueline Lichtenberg


  1. I'm now reading NATION, by Terry Pratchett, set on an alternate Earth. Following a catastrophic tsunami, a Pacific-Islander-analog boy meets a Victorian-English-analog girl shipwrecked on his devastated island. With no shared language, they have to learn to communicate. When she offers her name (Daphne), he at first assumes she is identifying her tribe, because of course that's much more important than an individual's personal name.

    Amusingly, his people call Europeans "trousermen" because of the strange garments they all wear.

  2. Pratchett is certainly a writer to study -- not only skillful but hitting his market square on.

    TROUSERMEN - you gotta love it.

  3. RE the "Save the Cat" principle: I've just watched a movie that seems to violate this precept: RENAISSANCE MAN, starring Danny DeVito. At the beginning of the film, he come across as an insufferable jerk. We might feel sympathy for him because he arrives late for an important business meeting through no fault of his own, but any such sympathy is undercut by the jerkish way he handles the failure of his sales pitch -- all through dialogue, of course. Worse, he demonstrates the same negative personality traits in his conversation with his teenage daughter. Only well into the movie does he begin to change. As far as I could tell, he doesn't show a glimmer of redeeming traits in the opening scenes. Perhaps the sympathy incited by his unfortunate plight -- he has to go on unemployment for the first time in his life -- substitutes for the usual demonstration that the character has some hope of redemption?

  4. Margaret:
    Oh, yes, the SAVE THE CAT! principle of opening on an ACTION which draws the audience into the main character's better traits (he may be a contract killer but he loves cats, or the helpless or whatever the audience loves) is a way for a first time screenwriter to sell a script, not a rule for what you can and will see in films or TV series.

    The SAVE THE CAT! rule is only for OPENS EVERYWHERE films -- for films designed to appeal to all 4 major demographic groups.

    Violate that principle, and you exclude one or more of those groups. Theory is, that exclusion will lower box office receipts. But it can work the other way - and increase receipts - if you have a KNOWN STAR who draws in major crowd from the remaining groups. If that Name draws in a higher percentage from the included groups, the film rates major success, draws 5-star reviews, and lives forever.

    It's the principle we revealed in STAR TREK LIVES! as the reason why STAR TREK became a classic (but we wrote the book when STAR TREK was despised, not classic).

    The principle I named THE TAILORED EFFECT takes a character and targets a very narrow slice of an already specialized audience and pleases them GREATLY.

    STAR TREK had a character for each sub-segment of its already narrow market, a whole market which was a tiny slice of ONE demographic from the classic four.

    STAR TREK pleased that teeny-tiny segment of all humanity to an unprecedented degree, and made them into wildly avid devotees. The intensity of a few outweighs the shrugs of the many or the one.

    RENAISSANCE MAN uses that principle. You can't write that kind of script if you have not written many-many scripts that conform to the SAVE THE CAT! principle. You have to know what you're doing, and have operational mastery of it, to break a rule and do it successfully.

    Note GENE RODDENBERRY had written many many formulaic TV episodes with SAVE THE CAT! type structures, before he sold STAR TREK.