Essays > Published on September 16th, 2011

Discon nected Dialogue: Part One

Christmas twenty-five years back, I took the Greyhound bus to visit my family.  The last stop was a desert town thirty miles from where my mother lived with her second husband, and the two of them would drive to collect me, arriving in a rusted pick-up truck.  With my wrapped Christmas gifts in the bed of the truck we started our drive home, my new step-father swerved to intentionally hit a pothole in the highway, and all those gifts slammed into the rear of the cab.

With a little smile, my step-father looked into the rearview mirror at the jumble of smashed boxes and said, “I hope none of those pretty presents was fragile...”

Funny man.  They’ve been divorced now for years.

In response I said, “Only yours...”

After that pothole, those two statements, none of us said another word until dinner.  Bad me.  Bad, bad, bad me.

A million hours of television sit-coms have trained us to be “witty,” to connect every statement with the perfect reply.  It’s a great game wherein one person demonstrates power, and another trumps that.  So, let’s talk about power.  Good plotting is about playing with power:  A character gets power, loses it, regains it.  Every time power shifts – like the ball changes teams in basketball – the story gains power, tension and momentum.

That said, consider how the perfect, clever response seems to kill the energy in a scene.  I say, “How’s the weather?”  You say, “Raining.”  And the communication is complete.  No frustration or unfulfilled expectation slops or builds into the next scene or moment or chapter.  So instead of being clever, let’s look at ways to build tension through rough, incomplete dialogue.

The first method to consider is Questions.  For a great example, watch the opening scene in the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  Here, the landscape is blurred with blowing sand, one character speaks Spanish, one speaks only French, a squadron of World War II fighter planes sit in the desert perfectly preserved from the 1940’s.  Everything is chaos in the roar of airplane engines and wind.  Finally, the man who translates the French and Spanish into English, stumbling backward amid this confusion screams, “Why are these planes here?”  Screams, “How did they get here?  What’s going on?  What’s happening?”  Or something similar.

The point is, he’s stating the core quest of the story, the questions the audience would ask.  Same deal in Citizen Kane, “Who is Rosebud?”  Same deal with your four-year-old toddler asking question after question.  Anytime you feel tension building in a film, be aware that a character might be asking a long series of questions to which no one is responding.  That said – just because a character asks a question, that doesn’t mean anyone has to answer it.  In fact, most times it’s more effective to just let the question “hang” unanswered, creating frustrated tension and unmet expectation.

One of the most common weaknesses in the work of new writers is that tendency to volley questions and answers, completing each exchange and leaving the energy flat.  For example:

“Did you walk the dogs?”

“Yeah, an hour ago.”

“Do they need to go out, now?”

“They should be fine.”

In her screenwriting course, the writer Cynthia Whitcomb talks about the “A, B, and C choices” for dialogue.  The A choice might simply complete the expectation of the question:  “Did you walk the dogs?”  The A choice:  “Yeah, an hour ago.”  Energy complete and flat.

The B choice might still respond to the original question, but spins it a little for tension:  “Did you walk the dogs?”  B choice:  “They’re your dogs...” 

But, the C choice ignores the original question and shows us the inner world of the responding character:  “Did you walk the dogs?”  C choice:  “Stop attacking me!”

Or:  “Did you walk the dogs?”  C choice:  “Did you fuck my friend, Gwen?”

Or:  “Did you walk the dogs?”  C choice:  “The lab called with your test results.”

So, forget being clever.  Leave that to television sit-coms.  If you’re going to use dialogue, forget being witty – okay, you can do that occasionally, but we’ll talk about “black-out lines” later.

For practice, watch that opening scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and note how many aspects of the scene are obscured or occluded.  List how many devices confuse the viewer (languages, noise, dust) and how many entice (the planes, the witness statement).  Also, note how characters talk “past” each other, seldom responding to questions or statements.  Next, read some stories from the Raymond Carver collection, “Cathedral.”  Carver was an expert at dialogue between disconnected people.

Tom Spanbauer used to say, “The longer you can be with the incomplete object, the better it will become.”  Keep paying your tension forward, keep pushing your largest incomplete issues into the next chapter.  Later, we’ll discuss wrapping them up in the last act of a book or story.

I’ll Shut Up Now....

About the author

Chuck Palahniuk is author of the novels Fight Club, Survivor, Invisible Monsters, Choke, Lullaby, Diary, Haunted, Rant, Snuff,  Pygmy, Tell-All, DamnedDoomed, and the upcoming Beautiful You. He also has two non-fiction books, the Portland travel memoir Fugitives & Refugees and the collection of true stories, essays, and interviews, Stranger Than Fiction.

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