Saturday, 9 August 2008

Word Palettes in Dialogue

Ooh look! Just been mooching around my favourites, catching up on submission guidelines, and the lovely Broo Doherty (of Wade and Doherty Literary Agency) has posted some top advice on writing your first novel!
Do go and have a read! You won't regret it! (Ricardo - what do you make of number 6?)

Several of her comments caught my eye. In particular, however, her thoughts on dialogue touch on something that's been gambolling upon the fallow fields of my brain.

5. Dialogue.

Do not shy away from allowing your characters to talk. But it is worth remembering that typically people are not allowed to talk for longer than two sentences before someone interrupts them. The other thing that may be useful if you are trying to characterise someone through their speech is to give them a catch phrase or a word that is unique to them. This gives them an individuality which is important.

Since reading Introducing NLP (by Joseph O'Connor and John Seymour), or maybe that had nothing to do with it, I've been picking up on themes in people's speech.

NLP suggests that everyone has a Primary Representational System for receiving information, and a second PRS for processing that information. So, I might typically draw the sounds from around me and display these in my head as images. What is important to remember is that everyone has their own unique model of the world. And everything we say, the words we use and the subjects we choose, our leads and our responses in dialogue, will patch into this model. Yep, Joseph and John are quick to point out that words form only about 7% of communication, with voice tonality coming in at around 38%, and body language hogging 55%. But, given that we have an awful lot of dialogue in our work, I'd agree with Broo that we would do well to consider how these words reflect their speaker's model - how they reveal the speaker's experience and background, education and beliefs and hopes and attitudes ...

The simplest demonstration might be the half glass. Your character remarks on the contents of her glass. Will she explain that it is half full, or half empty? Either way, you're saying something about her.

Maybe she thanks the Lord for the drink, or worries about drinking it too fast because it's expensive, or comments on the beautiful shape of the glass, or pays no heed and guzzles the contents, or shares it with someone else, or drinks even though she's not thirsty, or needs a straw, or needs three blue straws, or sticks out her little finger as she drinks ... all of these attitudes tell the reader something about her character - about her make-up.

Then consider that a theme is established. She will thank the Lord for a sunny day too; she will wish that she had the money to spend on an ice-cream on that sunny day; she will be amazed by the blueness of the sky on that sunny day; she will not even notice that it is a sunny day; etc.

Word palettes are more subtle and can be employed in every and any circumstance. Our protag may make the following remarks:

'That salmon is drowning in sauce.'

'That battery is dead.'

'It's so hot, I can barely breathe!'

Or pump up the superlatives:

'What an amazing meal!'

Or push into exaggeration mode:

'That's gotta be the best meal anyone has ever eaten!'

(This is a staple of my son's dialogue: in his world, things take forever or they are impossible or they are the best thing ever or there are infinity of them!)

In my life, I can think of people who always have something positive to say, people who will find the negatives and who expect the worst, people who will listen attentively and people who would rather talk about themselves, people who talk obssessively of their hobby, people who would rather not talk to anyone, people who ramble tangentially from one topic to the next, people who live in the past, people who speak apologetically, people who speak with authority ...

But, beneath the surface, I am fascinated by the word palettes - the themes - by the repetition of groups of words - by the nuances in dialogue which, when considered as part of a set, offer interesting insights into that person's model of the world. Go and have a chat with someone and look for their palette!


esruel said...

I shall refrain from talking about colours, though you might feel disposed to explore the theory!
Dialogue may be seen as form of sword-fencing, and just as deadly - it can kill you off, for sure.
Never write dialogue in a mental rocking chair... you must be on the edge of a cliff.

solv said...

'... Both blood pressure and pulse rate increase slightly in a predominantly red environment, and decrease if the surroundings are mostly blue. There are studies that show that people experience blue rooms as colder than yellow rooms, even when they are actually slightly warmer.'
(from 'Introducing NLP', as if you hadn't guessed ;-)
Yep, one could establish entire moods using just words and colours! O, that evil burnt umber!