One of my favourite quotes about dialogue is that it is two monologues clashing. It really gets across the idea that there are things said and unsaid which tell us competing wants and frustrations from two (or more) different characters at the same time. I don’t think that this quote applies to every piece of dialogue though and today i want to talk a little about the hidden nature of the relationships behind the people speaking and how as writers we can adapt our dialogue to reflect the changing nature of those relationships. Let’s get to it.
Two people are talking. Let’s say the nature of their relationship falls into one of three camps; Communality, Reciprocity and Dominance (This comes from a Stephen Pinker talk: will share link at end).
Communality – a relationship based on kinship and mutualism, dialogue and action will be engendered by what is ‘acceptable amongst friends’.
Reciprocity – a tit for tat relationship. How a diner may talk with a waiter for example.
Dominance – characterised by an understood power imbalance, for example between a boss and a worker.
When relationships fall neatly in these categories, the dialogue will follow quite predictable patterns in their nature. Friends will teach other more or less as equals, a buyer and a seller will haggle over a price, and a boss will tell his workers to get back to work! From a writer’s point of view, it gets interesting when there is movement between these categories. For example: there’s a great moment (so many!) in the comedy I’m Alan Partridge where bored former TV presenter Alan is feeling rather lonely and walks to the petrol station to buy a chocolate bar. He engages in some small talk for a little too long, then, as he prepares to leave, casually asks if the attendant wants to go out for a drink? It’s awkward, Alan is refused and hiding his embarrassment, leaves. What’s happening here is there is an established relationship of reciprocity: the attendant at the station and Alan, the customer. It’s a tit for tat exchange. Pleasantries about the weather are fine, but when Alan asks the attendant if he wants to go out for a drink, he crosses a line and we understand how lonely Alan really is deep down (even though it is a comedy!).
When you don’t know whether to call someone sir or by their first name it’s a sign you are caught in the fuzzy line between a dominance and a communality relationship. When the person pulled over for speeding offers a bribe, we’re moving from dominance to reciprocity. The thing I notice is that when a relationship changes from one characterisation to another, something interesting is happening – and that is what we are striving for!
Understanding the hidden nature of relationships between your characters can help unlock some magical moments in your writing. I highly recommend checking out this short Steven Pinker talk where he goes into a lot more detail about why we use the language we do and why, particularly the way we use indirect speech to protect ourselves from mutual knowledge. Plausible deniability can help maintain the fiction of many a relationship! https://www.trendhunter.com/keynote/steven-pinker