Say What?

The other day, my sister-in-law forwarded a video of seventeen-month-old twins (Sam and Ren) talking to each other. You’ve probably seen it on YouTube, especially since it went viral in 2011. (Yep. I usually join parties late.) The twins seemed to enjoy their conversation greatly. Their excitement, apparently, rubbed off on the world.

I couldn’t help laughing, not just at the conversation, but at the subsequent videos where adults analyzed what the twins were saying. Nonverbal cues (lifting one foot; waving a hand) were analyzed with a depth of concentration known to neurosurgeons analyzing MRI scans. Could they be talking about a missing sock? Ways to open the freezer? The stock market? A secret plot to take over the world? (Okay, the last two are my guesses.)

It’s great that a conversation riveted so many people. If you’re a writer, wouldn’t you love for your audience to be this engaged with your dialogue?

You have my permission to stop reading right now if you think that in the next minute I’ll tell you the MILLION DOLLAR SECRET TO WRITING POWERFUL, EXTRAORDINARY, EFFERVESCENT DIALOGUE. (And yes, such a statement requires all caps.) If I knew that secret, I’d be writing for shows like Doctor Who or Downton Abbey, and I would have people like Steven Moffat, Julian Fellowes, Will Smith, and Bruce Willis on speed dial. (Not that I don’t. . . . Okay. I don’t.)

Still, I can’t resist sharing at least one tip about dialogue:

Subtext. According to Janet Burroway, Elizabeth Stuckey-French, and Ned Stuckey-French, authors of Writing Fiction, “Often the most forceful dialogue can be achieved by not having the characters say what they mean” (Burroway, Stuckey-French 80). In other words, it’s all about subtext—the “emotional undercurrent” of dialogue (82).

Think about the last time you experienced strong emotion. Did you spout words that rival a Shakespearean sonnet? More than likely, none of us can make that claim.

Considering subtext as you write dialogue is challenging, but doable. Burroway et al. include examples from literature, but for this post, I wanted to find my own example. I chose a scene from Little Dorrit, Charles Dickens’s tale of money and debt and the yawning maw of the debtors’ prison (the Marshalsea).
Little Dorrit coverSorry. I can’t avoid spoilers here. Feel free to stop reading RIGHT NOW, if you wish to avoid them. One of the main characters, Arthur Clennam, winds up in the Marshalsea, a place he only visited before. In this scene John Chivery, son of the head turnkey, invites Arthur to have tea in his (John’s) room. 

Young John looked hard at him, biting his fingers.

‘I see you recollect the room, Mr. Clennam?’

‘I recollect it well, Heaven bless her!’

Oblivious of the tea, Young John continued to bite his fingers and to look at his visitor, as long as his visitor continued to glance about the room. (Dickens 756) 

Seems like a pretty straightforward conversation on the surface—two guys shooting the breeze. But John simmers with grief and anger due to his unrequited love for the titular character, Amy Dorrit. The room is a reminder of Amy, who was carried there after fainting hundreds of pages previously. John is bitterly aware that Amy loves Arthur and believes Arthur shares this awareness. Arthur, however, is completely oblivious. He’s too mired in his recent financial failure. Though he has come to realize his own love for Amy, he never fathomed that she would return that love. 

In 2009, PBS aired a wonderful 2008 BBC mini-series adaptation of this book. For a scene between Arthur and John go here. But I recommend checking out Dickens’s classic. Then go for it; let your dialogue simmer. Or go the “da da da” route of Sam and Ren. Either way, your audience will be riveted.

For more tips on conveying emotion through dialogue, check out this great post by my fellow VCFA alum, Jeff Schill.

Burroway, Janet, Elizabeth Stuckey-French, and Ned Stuckey-French. Writing Fiction. Boston: Longman/Pearson, 2003, 2007, 2011. Print.

For more information on the Little Dorrit miniseries, click here.


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