Monday, March 14, 2016

Prose Blip – Unspoken Dialogue

People talk.
They talk a lot, actually. It’s this funny thing about humans (and your related fantasy and sci-fi races) that continues to amuse me greatly. And it provides a lot of interesting choices while writing.

I want to talk about one of the more boring choices on that list, today. It’s not, in and of itself, boring, but compared to some other choices it’s definitely not up there on my “oooooh I get to do this!” list.

Dialogue is – as I’ve explored before and as your average third-grade grammar textbook will tell you – two or more people speaking. Thanks to your word-roots textbook, you’ll know that only one person speaking is a monologue. But that’s actually irrelevant and not necessary for this post. Oh well.

Most of the time, dialogue is shown through a series of (short) paragraphs surrounded by quotes and tags, with each person taking turns speaking (unlike real life, in my opinion):
“Hey Matt.”
“Hey, Sally.”
“I’m Bob.”
“Oh, sorry, you just look like Sally.”

Easy enough right?
Well, what happens when you don’t want to show all that speaking? What if your story just needs to move on and get to the next scene because things need to happen someday.
That is where you must ask yourself: is unspoken dialogue okay?

What is Unspoken Dialogue?

Unspoken dialogue is NOT telepathy. Telepathy is telepathy. Unspoken dialogue is dialogue that is summarized in a single sentence. This might sound strange, but you’ve probably used it before without even realizing it. This might look something like:

Arthur approached the guards and they blocked him from entering the door. When he said the password, however, they relaxed and stepped aside, welcoming him with stiff salutes.

Now. Find the unspoken dialogue in that poorly-written piece of prose. Found it yet? I’ll give you another second to-
Ah, there it is: “when he said the password”. This nifty little phrase allows Arthur to say something [in this case, the password] without my having to draw it out into actual dialogue. The scene could go something like this:

Arthur approached the guards and they blocked him from entering the door.
“Password,” one of them barked.
He swallowed hard and wiped his hands on his shirt. “Melon pellets.”
The guards glanced at each other, and then they relaxed and stepped aside. Both of them saluted as he passed through the doorway.

This second scene has twice as many words, for a scene that is rather unimportant. Yes, the second scene has more emotions – a grumpy guard barking orders, Arthur nervously giving his password. But… do we really need all of those extra words? Prose should be concise, shouldn’t it?

Well, that depends on two things: is his nervousness important? If he’s sneaking into the enemy base using a password he overheard from the villain, then yes. We need to see this scene painted out in painful tension and worry.
If Arthur is just arriving home after a day at work, then his password isn’t important. And he’s probably not nervous anyway.

The Uses of Unspoken Words

Unspoken dialogue is most useful when you’re trying to show that words are exchanged, but the exchange itself is not important:
The business partners greeted one another and, after a brief moment of small talk, turned to the matter at hand.

This situation is incredibly boring, unless I go on to show how the MC leans in to overhear their conversation because the matter at hand happens to be weapons smuggling and the MC works for INTERPOL or something.
But which is the best way to show this dialogue: spelling out each word of their small talk and greeting, or summarizing it in a sentence?
In the case of this, there’s no reason that this exchange need be told through tedious dialogue. It’s unnecessary.

When Unspoken is Best Spoken

A thing you’ll notice about unspoken dialogue, however, is the telling aspect of its entire being. While I don’t feel like discussing the truth of the phrase “show, don’t tell”, this is a moment where it actually makes sense.

Your reader wants to see the story in detail. We want your story to come alive and dance across our minds like a movie that’s playing in theatres just for us.
If you summarize a snippet of dialogue, then your reader won’t be able to picture it as a movie. It’s like you hit the mute button and then fast-forwarded through a bit of boring dialogue.
Just because it’s boring doesn’t mean we won’t realize that you’re skipping it.

Unspoken dialogue can be useful. But at the same time, it can kill the vividness of a scene.
So what do we do? Do we show all the boring bits of dialogue to maintain the scene, or do we skim over the parts your reader won’t care about?
Allow me to sum up:
-Show emotional dialogue. If the exchange involves strong emotions, your reader needs to be in on the conversation. Actually, if it’s emotionally strong, it’s probably not boring at all.
-Show dialogue that includes the MC. If your main character is speaking, your reader deserves to know what they say. We’ve been following this character around, sitting on their shoulder or inside their head, watching their every move and hearing their thoughts. If your MC speaks, we want to hear it. Even if it’s boring. When it’s boring, just make it awkward. Solves everything.
-When in doubt, start the conversation, then let it trail off. What do I mean by this? An example:
“What do you mean?”
Bart shrugged. “I’m jus’ sayin’ that you shouldn’ have ta do none o’ tha’ if’n you jus’ do as I say an’ not do that other thing.”
Aaron spat. “You know that’s not how this works; anyway, you’re one to talk.”
The two wandered off, still bickering.
This is a prime example of a rather unnecessary conversation that is established, then summed up and moved on from. Your reader gets a chance to picture the scene, then you whisk us off to something that’s actually important.

And that should be the goal of unspoken dialogue. Your reader should still be able to picture the scene, watch it move, but they shouldn’t have to sit through a long boring conversation about Aaron not doing that other thing.

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