Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Fish Bone Dialogue – When Characters Don't Want the Same Thing

Characters don't always want the same thing, and this comes through in how they talk to each other, or, often enough, past each other. The result can be a conversation that doesn't quite line up, like the ribs of a fish. We experience this ourselves. I say something that you don't want to talk about, so you give a half-hearted response. I say something else along the same lines, and you change the subject.

We tend to avoid disagreements, especially when they could upset relationships. We babble and tip-toe around subjects instead. You'll probably see this on display if you find yourself jammed into a room with your relatives during the Holidays. By way of example, take this excerpt from Hemingway's “Hills Like White Elephants.” An American man and a girl sit down together at a Spanish train station and this happens:

'“What should we drink?” the girl asked. She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.
“It's pretty hot,” the man said.
“Let's drink beer.”
Dos Cerbezas,” the man said into the curtain.
[...]The girl was looking off at the line of hills. They were white in the sun and the country was brown and dry.
“They look like white elephants,” she said.
“I've never seen one,” the man drank his beer.
“No, you wouldn't have.”
“I might have,” the man said. “Just because you say I wouldn't have doesn't prove anything.”
The girl looked at the bead curtain. “They've painted something on it,” she said. “What does it say?”
“Anis del Toro. It's a drink.”
“Can we try it?”' 
—(I recommend reading the full texthere, for instance

Your characters do not have to talk in straight lines. They don't have to chase thoughts to their natural conclusions, and they definitely don't have to stay on point. In this excerpt from “Hills,” the characters talk in a circle, from drinks, to an observation by the girl and a snippy exchange, followed by another observation, back to drinks. What makes the exchange interesting is the tension that drives this fish bone dialogue, which we catch a glimpse of in that snippy exchange about white elephants.

This couple isn't happy with each other.  Eventually the man breeches the subject at the heart of their displeasure.  He talks about what he wants to talk about: '“It's really an awful simple operation, Jig,” the man said. “It's not really an operation at all.”' This line is at first a mystery to us, but as we read on, we understand the girl is pregnant, and the man is talking her into an abortion. The tension underpinning the entire scene arises because these two characters don't want the same thing. Hemingway doesn't beat us over the head with this fact. He lets his characters speak for themselves, and we pick up on the tension because we're alive.

What is unsaid can be very powerful. We don't usually come right out with hard truths. Often we don't want to admit them even to ourselves. Despite the fact that our man tells his girl, “I don't want you to go through with it if you don't want to,” we know this isn't true, because he comes back to the “operation” again and again, even after the girl begs him to “please stop talking.”

He can't say, “I don't want a baby, I don't want a family, I don't want a wife. I just want to continue our fornication tour of Europe.” They can't have fun any more if he says that, because the girl will know their relationship does not lead to anything.

Try this: write a conversation between two characters, one or both of whom want to avoid a given subject. Maybe a death, an infidelity, God, empty peanut butter jars in the pantry—whatever you like. I don't want to put words on your page, but they should fail, at least in part, or else we won't know what they didn't talk about. Hell, write your own version of “Hills Like White Elephants.”

The personal conflicts in your writing do not all have to be on the scale of “Hills.” Minor problems can be as interesting as those with a serious emotional payload. Be mindful that you can wear readers out with too much tension. But remember, whenever you're trying to write a heavy scene, and you feel you have to tell your reader how very seriously important and emotional what they're reading is, you are probably doing something wrong.

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