Thursday, February 9, 2012

Using Demand/Response/Reaction to Diagnose and Treat Lifeless, Wandering, and Other Problem Dialogue


There are twenty good reasons for this scene to be mostly dialogue, but it needs to be a 1200 word scene, it's already 3500, and it hasn't yet done half of what it should.

The agent/editor/holder of checks says, "I love your dialogue.  You have a great ear.  There's just so much of it."

Your writing group does the experiment of taking roles and reading through the dialogue, and while their reading of your lines becomes more and more intense, the scene seems to go on forever; somehow people shouting at each other is becoming dull.

Some editor or agent says, "I just didn't see where this dialogue was going."

You can hear every phrase of the dialogue in your head, and imagine the voices saying it, but readers tell you they "don't know what that scene is about." 

Your editor has just circled a vital plot point and labeled it "Unnecesssary exposition."

The reviewer is grumbling that "this major plot point was just dropped."  You don't remember there being any such plot point.  When you check you find it came up in the dialogue twice, and  now you wish you had cut it.

Diagnosis: Charting demand, response, and reaction

On web sites dedicated to film and TV,  you can find a long list of things you never see in movies anymore: people starting a car (unless it's going to stall and the stall is plot-important), people saying goodbye on the phone, someone hurrying to answer a door (unless, again, it's plot important), explanations of anything we've already seen, tech people trying to understand what is going on (unless it's a setup for a more important character instantly knowing), whole plays in sports, complete trips of any kind from running across a footbridge to driving through rush hour.  Initial awkwardness, tedious middles, and unnecessary-because-obvious endings, extranea of almost all kinds.  And of course they're right; if you're paying the star a quarter million per minute of finished screen time, let's not have him spend any big part of it standing in lines, riding on city buses, or flossing unless there's a story point behind it.

Fiction time (or space on the page)  is even more that way.  The movie viewer might forgive you for that too-long shot of a hot person in underwear climbing the stairs (instead of just cutting to them coming up the last three steps).  Chances are they won't storm out to the lobby to shriek to the manager about it and demand a refund, depending of course on the star and the underwear. Readers who encounter "his boxers bunched around his hips as he put his foot on the first step," "there was barely a rustle from his unironed undies on the second step,"  "the third step passed like the others, and the fourth gave her yet another glimpse of his worn but not stained Fruit of the Looms,"  can close the book forever. (And should).  If they do, you're fired.*

So first of all, dialogue in fiction must be much, much briefer than in real life, and get to the point more quickly and clearly.  But that shouldn't be hard to achieve at all: just write things down the way people talk, and then shrink to fit.

It's a truism in beginning writer classes that we don't write dialogue the way people actually talk because, in the words of one student, "Well, if you wrote it, um, wrote – like every word they say? That's not – I mean it is – the way they talk, but not – you know.  For a story it's – different? I mean for any story, not just for a story. A story is kind of narrative and whatnot and it – the dialogue – when real people talk, they say um a lot. But they also … does that make sense?"

You could take that vague meandering 70 words and shrink it to 13 words:

Writing every word that would really be said is bad for a story.

The succinctness is an improvement but now we can clearly see that it's not an answer. "Don't write like people talk" is a negative commandment. "Not writing like people talk" can cover a wide span of territory, pretty much everything from Edgar Rice Burroughs to William Burroughs, or from James Joyce's Ulysses to Alastair McLean's HMS Ulysses.  Practically no published dialogue is "like people talk," and when readers complain that it is not, they almost always mean it has a specific feature not to their taste, rather than that it doesn't contain enough ums, you knows, thingies, nonsequiturs, and trail-offs. 

Right there is the clue: what's the specific feature?  What makes it fictional dialogue, as opposed to transcription, or exposition in quote marks?**

In fiction every sentence does something to the narrative flow, and by narrative flow I mean that moment-to-moment, word-to-word reader experience of getting from "Chapter 1" to "END". Sometimes it impedes or obscures or shreds the narrative flow into turbulence.  Sometimes it accelerates it, or deepens it so that it carries more stuff, and often it throws it around a bend.  But one way or another, if it's in a story,  a pararaph, sentence, clause, phrase, or word does something to that flow.***

In real life there's no narrative flow, a fact which large numbers of novelists have gotten all poetic about, and besides a majority (80% is thrown around all the time) of human verbal communication is "flocking signals," i.e. agreeing that we belong together and are on the same team, or as most sheep would put it,  "baaa."**** 

So fictional dialogue is different from real life speech because dialog is made up of sentences which change the narrative flow.

There are three ways narrative flow can change:
1. Someone can try to do something (and succeed or fail).
2. Something can happen in response to one of those attempts to do something. (The success or failure).
3. Some person, based on the attempt and its success/failure, can change his/her mind (or confirm it more strongly).
In all but the simplest-minded stories, usually all three happen around every incident.

This is easy to see in actions.   (1) Hamlet tries to stab Claudius,  (2) fails because it was actually Polonius behind the curtain, and (3) has to deal with his much worse position.  (1) Holmes waits up because he suspects the false bell pull is being used to transport a poisonous snake toward the intended victim, (2) He proves right and drives off the snake with his stick, causing the death of the would-be murderer, (3) Everyone except the villain and the snake agree it's a good thing that the villain is dead, and invite Holmes to explain how he knows.  (1) Holden Caulfield takes Phoebe to the Central Park carousel in an attempt to cheer her, and himself, up.  (2) Her evident joy makes him break down emotionally in public. (3) This apparently leads to his getting psychiatric help.

It's less easy to see in dialogue, but it's there, very strongly.  Specifically, in good dialogue,  as often as possible, (1) A character makes a demand on another, (2) the other character's response shows that the demand either fails or succeeds, and (3) both characters have a reaction to the way that the demand and response changed the relationship.

"Beth-Louise, I was thinking prom is coming up and I wondered – " (demand)
"Not if you were the last living male mammal on the continent, Jim." (response)
"I wondered if you might be interested in ordering flowers from my mom's shop." (reaction; also a demand – pretend I didn't ask)

"Send out all the hostages by ten. Otherwise we'll hold their funerals at eleven and begin bombardment at noon." (demand, obviously – but note that the real demand is not for the hostages, who are not even present in this scene, but for the second speaker's fear)
"Really? You would kill them yourselves  rather than talk with us?" (response, refusing to fear – also a demand that the first speaker acknowledge his own brutality)
"Those are my orders. There is a man waiting to strangle me if I don't carry them out. Our customs are harsh and I am sad, but no one ever takes hostages against us.  Not twice anyway." (reaction to the negative response and to the judgment it implies;also a response to the demand for acknowledgment – a yes; also a demand – see me as a moral person.)

In general, your best lines of dialogue will contain/imply/embody a demand, a response, and a reaction; notice how much more dramatically interesting the third speech is in those mini-dialogues above, because it is multiple-duty

So where you have dialogue people are groaning about, or skimming, or any of the other symptoms, your first job is to look at it and see if you can find demands, responses, and reactions.  For particularly troublesome dialogue while book-doctoring, I used to actually break it into a four-column table, with the actual dialogue in the left column, and then demands, responses, and reactions shown parallel to the lines where they occurred.

For example, here's a scene I happen to love in Conrad's Typhoon; MacWhirr, the captain who is noted for his lack of imagination, is talking to Jukes, his first mate, who is probably the smartest and most thoughtful (and definitely the most articulate) officer on board. 

In reading the chart it helps a great deal to remember that the response to each demand will be found diagonally down and right of the demand, and that the reaction is the emotional flavoring/subtext that will underlie the original text, the demand, and the response – all three of them together – in the same line.  So if we number the lines, your eyes should track, approximately: Demand 1, Response 2, Reaction 2, Demand 2, Response 3, Reaction 3, Demand 3, Response 4, etc.

He did not look at his chief officer, but said at once, "That's a very violent man, that second engineer."
Agree with me that we ought to fire Harry

Reaction to witnessing Jukes's having sent the complaining Harry back to his duty

"Jolly good second, anyhow," grunted Jukes. "They can't keep up steam," he added, rapidly, and made a grab at the rail against the coming lurch.
Please understand that Harry is in an impossible situation
No, I won't.
Let's keep our minds on keeping the ship functioning (illustrated by that lurch)
Captain MacWhirr, unprepared, took a run and brought himself up with a jerk by an awning stanchion.
"A profane man," he said, obstinately. "If this goes on, I'll have to get rid of him the first chance."
Understand that if I have/want to,  I will fire Harry whether you agree or not
No, I won't
Getting rid of Harry is part of our job as officers

"It's the heat," said Jukes. "The weather's awful. It would make a saint swear. Even up here I feel exactly as if I had my head tied up in a woollen blanket."
Recognize what Harry is up against
I'm going to ignore you
Display of empathy for other officers and crew, trying to model it for the captain, not believing MacWhirr is so insensitive

Captain MacWhirr looked up. "D'ye mean to say, Mr. Jukes, you ever had your head tied up in a blanket? What was that for?"
Speak plainly and don't exaggerate
I'll drop the issue for the moment
A tacit admission that conditions really are terrible, but anger at Jukes excusing bad conduct by bad conditions
"It's a manner of speaking, sir," said Jukes, stolidly.
Don't attack me (demand is probably pro forma)
Tacitly, we'll close the important part of the deal: Harry stays
Having gotten the captain to be reasonable, Jukes puts himself in the path of a rant

"Some of you fellows do go on! What's that about saints swearing? I wish you wouldn't talk so wild. What sort of saint would that be that would swear? No more saint than yourself, I expect. And what's a blanket got to do with it -- or the weather either. . . . The heat does not make me swear -- does it? It's filthy bad temper. That's what it is. And what's the good of your talking like this?"
Accept my judgment and authority
I'll attack you if I want to, it's my prerogative
Accepting Juke's offer of a chance to blow off steam by ranting at Jukes

In good dialogue:
• the demand, response, and reaction columns should be easy to fill in,
• you'll only rarely have blanks,
• there will be a consistency and pattern to the demands/responses/reactions of each character; for example, some characters react to a negative response by making a bigger demand; some demand responses that disavow prior negative reactions; some prefer ignoring (like these two) to bringing matters to a head (they're old comrades, they respect each other, and a major storm is about to blow in).   Finally,
• you'll be able to clearly see why and how some lines emphasize the demand (e.g. MacWhirr's first), some emphasize the response(e.g. Jukes's last, the next to last overall), and some the reaction.  (e.g. MacWhirr's last, the last overall).

In okay but improvable dialogue:
•there will be some obvious blanks; to fill them in you'll have to alter dialogue, sharpening the appearance of the demand, response or reaction
•there may be little pattern to the demand response reaction rhythm, either for characters or overall, or fragmentary patterns may appear and then collapse.
•emphasis will appear to be accidental, and will need tweaking and allocating, between expressing the demand, the response, or the reaction.

In weak, scattered, unfocused, or generally inept dialogue, which you might want to just scrape and pitch:
•There will be few apparent demands, responses, and reactions; mostly people will just talk.  (This is the acid test for really bad expository dialogue).
•Blanks will abound
•Patterns will usually be absent, for characters and overall, or
•the pattern may be ping-pong (same demand, same response, over and over and over, without much reaction).
•the dialog will be just words, with nothing to show whether the demand, the response, or the reaction is the main thing happening.

Prescription: make the chart look better and rewrite the dialogue to fit it

The chart is my extreme systematized version; if you play with this for even a little while, you'll rapidly discover that you can start fixing these problems without going to the bother of the chart.  Nevertheless, I still do the chart sometimes; it forces serious problems into stark relief with great big FIX MEs pinned to them, and pushes you to really fix rather than just retype.

First and most obvious, fill in blanks, and change things to form patterns, in the three columns to the right.  Once you've done that, modify the dialogue so that it expresses those demands, responses, and reactions with the proper emphasis.

A nice trick that works well for me is to repeat a keyword between the most important component of each line.  For example if the thing you are emphasizing is the demand in line 29 and it's "confess you love Lydia" (expressed perhaps in the words "I see now that with Lydia around there was no hope for me,") and in line 30 you're emphasizing the reaction "Lydia? WTF? Doesn't she know I'm gay?", you might say, "Actually, there was no hope for Lydia, either, with Hector around."  Thus "no hope" and "Lydia" express the demand in  line 29, and the reaction in line 30, tying them together and keeping it very clear what this is about.  The next line (31) might be, "So it's Hector I should congratulate; good. Lydia would have required more sportsmanship than I can muster."

Tactics, at this level, means the particular technique or approach to phrasing the demand into words.  Many characters (and real people) have characteristic tactics; implying that their demands are divinely ordained, or the proper custom of the tribe, or too much trouble but must be met anyway; phrasing a response of "no" with deep regret or a response of "yes" with a subtext of "you see the sacrifices I make for you?"; playing up or suppressing the reaction; doubling down on the next demand after a "no" response, or demanding something for which the answer will be "yes" to placate anyone who has given an angry reaction.

Look for ways to get all three components, demand, response, and reaction (or two or one if that's all that's appropriate to the line) into the right number of words of actual dialogue.

If you are using a lot of the same words in your demands, responses, and reactions and in the finished dialogue, something isn't right.  Possibilities: your dialogue is  too on, your D/R/R columns are too indirect, or your characters are seriously stupid.  Then again, maybe there's about to be a fight or an out of control sex scene (the two times people tend to phrase demands, responses, and reactions very literally in the actual dialogue). 

As a tactic it is especially important to phrase whichever component is getting the emphasis directly but not literally, i.e. very clearly but without saying the words outright.  Usually the more important a thing is, the less direct people are willing to be, but the less they're willing to risk misunderstanding, too.

Where you have ping-pong (as described above), the fastest and often best fix is to cut directly from the line where it starts to the line where it ends.  If you need a longer sequence of dialogue, you might find other things for them to talk about; if they absolutely have to stay on this topic, see how much you can vary the tactics to avoid repetition.

Where you have a row of blanks, can you just cross out the whole paragraph?  If not, does it have to be dialogue – could it be narrative summary instead?

Sometimes you can really pound a point home – the equivalent of a great roaring crescendo – by deliberately writing a line that expresses only one component.

There's sort of a "dolly" effect in that lines that emphasize the demand tend to drive the reader forward, making them read faster (to see how the demand will be responded to); lines that emphasize the response to a prior demand, probably because they cause a momentary look-back, tend to slow the reader down.  Both tend to bring the reader more closely into the action.  Reactions tend to be zoom-outs or pans in effect; they move the reader back out to contemplate the action.

Make sure your viewpoint character is perceiving reactions, as these are the cues that readers pick up most strongly.  Many times toward the end of a beat, and around its core, you'll find emphasis naturally shifts to reactions (or wants to).

Remember that a lack of overt reaction is a reaction.  (If your father calls your sister a filthy whore and your mother stands there impassively, not reacting, that is a telltale reaction; if Norton says, "Grant, next time I see you, I'll have a gun, and you might not see me before you're dead," and Grant says, "Nice chatting with you, but look at the time, and I have important things to take care of," that reaction says volumes about Grant.

Important questions about every character in a situation: how much are they surprised by their own reactions?   How aware are they of their own demands?  How obligated or bound do they feel by their responses?

If you find yourself dead stuck in working out dialogue – they need to keep talking but you cannot for the life of you imagine what they would say next – three useful tricks:
  1. Make the next response the least likely, and then find your way back from there. I.e. if everything should lead up to the character giving a resounding no, try having them say yes.  If the response should be "how can you accuse me of that, I'm leaving," consider having them sit down and say "oh my god, you're so right, what am I going to do?"  Large sudden unexpected motion always grabs attention.  Just ask that huge stranger who suddenly sits up in your backseat while you're driving.
  2. Give the character who speaks next the demand that would most enhance or most alleviate their last reaction.  If they reacted with terror, make their next demand for guaranteed safety; if they reacted with joy, their next demand should be for perfection.
  3. Maybe it's time for the scene or beat to be over.   Would a very brief reaction line take care of it?

A really good reaction is a reaction to the other person's demand, response, and reaction all at once.  The ratio of importance in the reaction is a powerful tool for characterization:
•empathetic characters react more to the other person's reaction and less to the response. 
•aggressive power seekers react more to the response and the less to the demand.
•pleasers, yes-men, submissives, and the badly abused react entirely to the demand, trying to get off the hook as a first priority.
•spectrum disorder/aspy characters may not react to reactions at all; psychopaths may not react to responses; resentful and passive-aggressive people may not react to demands.


*Sometimes unfairly.  Not every reader will understand the point of every scene; there's always that guy reading On the Road who doesn't get why those guys drive and talk so much, or has just picked up a classic puzzle mystery and is wondering why there are all these extra characters and the host is nattering on about the furniture, the layout of the house,  and the peculiarities of the staff.

** A quick note on that latter: many workshops and some editors have fetishized the many problems with expository dialogue into a general prohibition.  In fact there are at least a dozen good uses and reasons for characters explaining things to each other in dialogue, and it's sometimes the best choice.  But if you use it, no matter how valid or transparent your reason, some editors and reviewers will leap up and down and point at it, much in the manner of a two year old who has just learned to recognize a duckie.

***If it doesn't, it's because there's no flow, and you have a dead story, which is a different problem.

****That does not mean that flocking communication is of no value or interest.  We spend so much time on flocking signals because they are vital to our survival and deceptive, ignored, or rebuffed flocking signals are one of the best ways to foster an aura of menace in fiction or drama (Shirley Jackson and Harold Pinter are masters of this in very different ways).