Does your character say the right thing – but it’s understood the wrong way? Or takes something well-meaning in the wrong spirit?
I was given a great lesson in writing dialogue recently. It all started with me being upset by some responses I received to a piece of news I shared with family and friends.
The news was that my husband had been diagnosed with aggressive prostate cancer. It may sound strange that this should be an occasion to gain insights into writing dialogue but, hey, sometimes you have to find small comforts wherever you can.
“Oh, that’s the one that doesn’t amount to much, isn’t it?”
“What a nuisance.”
“But it’s a given that people don’t die of it.”
“Oh yes, I’ve dozens of friends who’ve had it. That was years ago and they’re all fine.”
I got very upset. I felt they were brushing this nasty, threatening disease off as a simple inconvenience, like a sore throat or a headache or the flu. No, my husband said, they’re just trying to be comforting.
Words – those slippery things! One person can use words to mean one thing while another person might understand them in quite another way.
In real life one tries to say the right thing so as not to ruffle feathers or cause offense.
In real life, the fact is that one doesn’t always say the right thing. After saying something off-key, one feels dreadful and the person to whom it’s been said feels dreadful. Trust me, I know. I’m not only quite prickly and take offense easily, but I’m also someone who, despite best intentions, often manages to say the slightly (very?) wrong or inadequate thing at sensitive moments.
In real life, different people react differently to illness and death and disease.
In fiction, the narrative sparkles with energy when the wrong thing is said, or something is said and taken wrongly – especially in an important context. Oops, what’s happening? Things are going awry. In fiction, the ideal is that that they go seriously awry. That’s when the reader gets pulled in and feels sorry for or angry on behalf of a character, when they take sides and worry about what is going to happen, hope it will all turn out all right but suspect the worst.
While thinking abut this issue, I’ve been paying particular attention to what is said to my characters, what they say. I’ve been watching how they respond – is their body saying something different from their words? Their voice? Eyes?
An issue comes up. Does a character want to avoid talking about it? Does he or she change the subject? Or do they say nothing, say something inappropriate or make a joke of it?
I’m watching out for their clever or funny comments that shift into slights. Far more interesting in a story than an outright insult or attack.
Does my character notice something has been taken amiss? Does she talk blithely on not noticing, and make things worse? Or does she apologize? (and make things worse still?)
In real life we like to smooth things over. In my fiction I want my characters to dig themselves into a nice deep pit. Then see how they scramble out of it.
Remember not only to say the right thing in the right place, but far more difficult still, to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.
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