AKA: Answering Without Answering
Much of the beauty of an Ikebana arrangement comes from the space surrounding the arrangement and the spaces between the branches.
In the language of flowers, the spaces in between are silent moments in conversation. It could be awkward silence, amicable silence, pregnant pauses. It could be tense, comfortable, cold, warm, depressing, energizing.
When writing dialogue, it’s such a temptation to let the dialogue do the heavy lifting of worldbuilding or advancing plot, to let the characters explain everything, reveal their motives, convince another character, prove themselves to the reader. It would be so easy for the Main Character to profess “eternal love” to Love Interest. Or for Parent to reveal Big Secret to Child.
But real life doesn’t work that way. Unless we’re with someone 24/7 from the moment of their birth, we can never fully know everything that happened to them, nor everything they think or feel. We don’t ever fully know what they want when they speak to us. In fact, people sometimes don’t know what they want, or they have an idea of what they want, but they speak from need.
It’s the same thing with finding a branch or twig or particular flower. We can infer what happened to it by how the branch bends, how a twig curls, the scars on its bark or skin, or perfection of a bloom. But only in the most sanitary scientific conditions can be sure that one thing caused another. And even then, we still can’t be fully sure of how it will end up.
Stuff a bunch of them into a vase and you can get a decent bouquet.
Displayed in an Ikebana arrangement, though, individual components blend into a story.
Stems, branches, flowers.
But the spaces in between, the silence, holds the things that can’t be said or emotions that defy words.
And the things we can’t or don’t say can define us as much as the things we choose to talk about.
Silence is a form of dialogue.
What are topics that are taboo for you? What are topics your characters can’t or won’t talk about? Do your characters have words they would never use like Faith, Son, God, Penis, Dong, Caulk, Love?
Let’s check out how to Answer without Answering in Dialogue (aka, the not-so-quiet Silent moments). While we do that, let’s also take a look at some other issues that can make Dialogue scenes clunky or clumsy.
Also, a refresher of what a Character 5×5 is and how to use it might be handy.
Let’s put on our serious pants and deconstruct a horribly generic sample:
While I put1 the rest of my clothes into the bag2, my dad appeared at my bedroom door.
“I was going to take your car to get detailed, Bernie3,” he said ominously4, “when I noticed you didn’t have your proof of insurance in the secret flap over the windshield.”
“Oh that can’t be right, Dad,5” I said. “You gave it to me a month ago and I put it in there.”
“Well, Bernie6, it wasn’t there,” he answered7. “You and I both know8 that document protects you monetarily in case you get into an accident.”
“Ok, Dad, I might have forgotten where exactly I put it inside the car,” I admitted9.
“Your Uncle Marty forgot his proof of insurance during his family vacation last December, Bernie,” dad replied10. “He got pulled over and the cop said he had to return to Nevada within 24 hours to show proof of insurance or he’d get a fine, Bernie.”
“Oh yes, Dad, I remember that story,11” I said.
“And as you know12, Bernie, your mom got pulled over on Latham and the cop asked for her proof of insurance and she couldn’t remember where it was either. I had to stand in line for over an hour at the DMV.”
“That must have been incredibly irritating, Dad,” I said sarcastically13.
“And if you’re ever in an accident and the cops come, Bernie, the person without proof of insurance is automatically at fault,” my dad said peevishly. “So having it in the car is important at all times14, Bernie.”
“I agree,15” I agreed.
1. We can do better than this weak verb.
2. Be specific and unique with character possessions, especially things they wear/constantly have close to their bodies (weapons, mementos, bags)/cars they drive. What people buy/own/use defines them as much as what they say/do.
3. Using a character’s name in dialogue. This one’s iffy. If it’s the first time we get the POV character’s name, I’d actually keep this to dribble in the information.
4. I’d cut this “ominously” if I’ve already established that any time the Main Character’s dad interferes with the car, something bad happens.
5. The audience can infer that the POV character, Bernie, is talking to his dad. Also, watch out for dialogue bits that are too formal or just don’t sound realistic for the situation. People speak differently depending on who they’re talking to, culture, emotional state, etc.
6. Ok, now the names in dialogue are just going to be annoying. Start culling.
7. What the dad says is already an answer. No need to be redundant and actually say in narrative that he “answered.” In fact, use “says/said” if you need dialogue tags. Using other words like “answered” or “replied” draws attention to the “answered” or “replied” and takes attention away from what the character is actually saying. (Exception is children’s books.)
8. Classic indication that an infodump is about to happen. If all the characters speaking already know what’s about to be said, no need to bludgeon the reader over the head with it. Try presenting it as one character remembering it happening differently, or having an opposite emotional association with the memory, or maybe tired of having the memory brought up again.
9. What Bernie says is already admitting something, thus “admitted” is redundant and draws more attention to “admitted” than what he’s admitting. When possible, show how a character admits something: reluctantly? gleefully? with satisfaction or malice? Also, he should stop saying “Dad” because it’s obvious who he’s talking to.
10. The dad saying something back is already a reply— “replied” is redundant.
11. This POV character sounds like a puppet saying whatever needs to be said to get the dialogue moving towards the point. You can create or ramp up tension in dialogue by having each character speak in order to achieve his/her own ends. In other words, there’s more tension when everyone has their own motivation for taking part in the conversation.
12. Another classic phrase indicating an impending infodump.
13. Ok, I could make a case for keeping “sarcastically” to show that the character means more than what he’s saying. But, I could instead tweak what he says so it sounds more true to life without having to filter what he says with the word “sarcastically.”
14. The whole scene basically says this. A strong argument for keeping the line is to drive home how irritating Dad is. Otherwise, something else might be better here.
15. Three things wrong with this last line: A. who says “I agree?” this easily, especially to parents? B. POV character says something agreeable, which means “I agreed” is completely redundant. C. Any tension in that scene just escaped through these words.
Let’s tweak the scene to make it palatable. This time, let’s try to answer without explicitly answering by staying true to what the characters would say, how they would say it, what they would talk about, and just as importantly, what they can’t personally talk about.
We’ll also cull the infodumps, repetitive adverbs, and names which are taking up precious story real estate and bring in some lines more worthy of word count.
I was shoving my favorite jeans into the trash bag I was using as a suitcase when my dad knocked on the doorframe.
“Bernie,” he said. “I wanted to get your car detailed but I couldn’t find your proof of insurance. I thought I told you to always keep it in that flap over the windshield.”
“It’s there,” I said.
“No it’s not,” he said.
“It’s in there somewhere.”
“Your Uncle Marty forgot his proof of insurance last December. He got pulled over and the cop said he had to return to Nevada within 24 hours to show proof of insurance or he’d get a fine.”
“And he had to drive five hundred miles in the snow, overnight,” I said. “Uphill both ways.”
“Your mom got pulled over on Latham and the cop asked for her proof of insurance and she couldn’t remember where it was. I had to stand in line for over an hour at the DMV to show them the form.”
“And the Bruins lost that afternoon because you weren’t yelling at the TV to make sure they ran in the right direction,” I said.
“Listen to me!” he said. “If, God forbid, you’re ever in an accident, you’ll need to show proof of insurance or you’ll have to pay no matter who hit who. Last I checked, you had five dollars in your account. Who do you think gets to pay for it, on top of paying for your tuition at that goddamn hippie college?”
I clenched my jaw, shamed into silence.
Dad cleared his throat. “Anyway, I’ll call Renato and have him fax over another copy. Make sure you put it in, okay? I’m going to take your car to get a tune-up and check the tires. After that I’ll get’er detailed. So if you need to go out for any last minute things, you can take my truck.”
He looked at me like he was waiting for me to thank him or something, then got all red-faced and left.
“Love you too, Dad,” I muttered.
That “shamed into silence” part might be overkill for some readers. I’d let a few betas look at it and see what they say.
Hopefully the tweaked version gives a better idea of the internal conflicts motivating the dad to talk about proof of insurance in this particular scene, and how the POV character takes what’s being said versus how a reader might see the interactions between them as a whole.
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