I enjoy the Guardian Weekend magazine. Well, about 63 per cent of it, which is pretty good going on their part. Lately, I've noticed a trend in one of the mag's regular features, which can unexpectedly inspire fiction writing and dialogue in particular.
The Blind Date feature sends two strangers for an evening in a restaurant, then quizzes them individually about the experience, placing their answers in two columns side by side. One of the questions is What Did You Talk About?, and it's this one we'll focus on here. Take a look at the two sets of answers to this question, from six different Blind Date features, and notice something which unites all of these examples...
Yes! When the participants are asked what they talked about during their date, they each recall completely different subject matter. Literally not one thing the same. This doesn't always happen in the Blind Date feature, but about 75 per cent of the time.
This phenomenon has little to do with blind dates in and as of themselves. Neither does it mean each person has appalling short-term memory or is being dishonest. It is, however, relevant to writing dialogue, because it underlines how everyone tends to have their own conversational agenda. All too often, we're lost in our own little egotistical worlds, convinced that the other person really is "genuinely interested" in that dissertation.
And of course, the reality may differ. Unless a conversation is particularly focused for some reason - urgency perhaps, or politeness, or the involvement of a gun - it doesn't ping perfectly back and forth, with each side neatly answering the other every time. Surprisingly often, two simultaneous conversations are happening, about different things, or the subject matter gets tugged to and fro. Each party is much more interested in certain subjects than others, for their own reasons, just as they each take different things away from the conversation.
So next time we're writing dialogue, it might be an interesting technique to ask ourselves this: if each of our characters was asked what they talked about during this conversation, might they say entirely different things? And might the conversation gain authenticity and dramatic tension as a result?
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