Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Teenager Whisperer (or Writing Authentic Dialogue: Lesson One)

One of the most challenging elements of writing story is mastering dialogue. A good writer can perform magic with dialogue – having the characters say one thing when they mean another – creating all kinds of nuance and intrigue and subtle revelations about how a character is really feeling.

If you can find yourself a teenager, he can provide you with some solid training in this area. I don’t like to brag, but I’ve become reasonably good at decoding some of what the teenager actually means.

First let me say: most of what comes out of his mouth is pretty straightforward. But some words – some formerly familiar words – don’t seem to actually mean what you expect. Often, it’s all in the context.

For example, take the word “Yes.” Certainly “Yes” can mean “Yes” when the question is something like, “Would you like a hot dog for dinner?” But “Yes” means something entirely different when the question is, “Did you hear what I just said?” In that context, “Yes” actually means, “With all due respect, Mom, would you please shut up and leave me alone.”

Do you see the subtle differences there?

And in the matter of “No,” there are actually many terms that you can use to spice up your dialogue that are viable substitutes.

Here are some unorthodox synonyms for “No.

“I’ll think about it.”
“In a bit.”
“I will, just later.”
“Sure, in just a sec.”

The more complete translation is: “No. Not now, not ever. But I don’t want to come out and say no right now though because then a discussion will likely follow.”

You can deftly use some of the selections above when your dialogue includes questions like:

“Shall I sign you up for the field trip?”
“Will you please empty the dishwasher?”
“Have you done your homework?”
“Can we talk about summer plans?”

The whole concept is very simple really; it reminds me of a favorite old joke:

Did you hear the one about the Freudian slip? A man is sitting across the table from his wife, and he means to say, “Honey, can you pass the salt?” But what comes out of his mouth instead is, “You bitch, you ruined my freaking life!”

1 comment:

  1. oh my. i'm taking notes. right now the most diplomatic yes/no reponse i can give mackenzie is "we'll see".