What Are They Talking About?

What Are They Talking About?

“Listening in” and Playing Catch-up:
Writing (and Reading) Dialogue

By WTP Writer Richard Wertime
Woven Tale Press writer Richard Wertime reflects
on the craft of fiction in an ongoing series of craft notes

“I mean, like—y’know?…”

It’s not fresh news to any writer of experience that readers of fiction are forever playing “catch-up.”

Suspense—again, grounded, as it is, in “enticement”—mobilizes the reader’s inferential powers, and does so in the service of enabling the reader to discern, piecemeal, as the reading proceeds, what is not being divulged in an overt way.

This need for “doping out” what, in fact, is going on is heightened and intensified when the reader meets with dialogue. People in conversation make vast assumptions about what the “other” (or the others) already know, and have virtually no need to explain to one another the tacit basis of their speaking together. (An exception might exist when total strangers meet, but even that will prove to be a qualified exception.)

This grounding in prior knowledge, in assumed understanding, forms the backstory and context for people talking together, and enables them to communicate effectively in “shorthand,” omitting vast amounts of what a stranger listening in, unobserved by the speakers, will not be privy to—not initially, at least!

And here’s where playing “catch-up” is going to come in. In a paradoxical way, the very reader who lags behind, who is forced to play catch-up, is also the reader getting a “jump” on this deficiency by proactively looking ahead, trying to guess where the drift of the conversation might lead. As E. H. Gombrich says in Art and Illusion, we routinely project what he calls “cultural schemata” onto the breadth of our experiences, and then monitor the feedback to see how accurate the projection has been. In reading, he says elsewhere (Art, Perception, and Reality), we’re “intending” the text even as we’re “attending to it. It’s really quite astonishing how little it takes—how meager a scrap—to engage our curiosity and get our “inventive” engines going!

Guesswork in action: the volatility of our surmises. Permit me to envision the following situation:

I’m sitting in a diner, my nose in my phone as I’m waiting for my breakfast, when these two come in and take seats in the next booth. The booths are high-backed so I can’t see either of them, and they’re speaking in low tones. But I can make out what they’re saying:

Ya get it?”
“Nuh. I couldn’t.”
What’re we gonna do now? Jeez.”
S’a problem. Yeah.”

… Guys? Two girls? A non-binary-gendered couple? I hadn’t really noticed as they’d walked by. My guess, though, is guys. They sound like guys—the slurred speech, the low tones. And not too educated.

But what are they talking about? What couldn’t they “get”? What sort of peril will their failure result in? They’re clearly pretty edgy, anxious, you could say…

They feel vulnerable, these two. This much, at least, I can infer from what they’re saying, and from the tone of their exchange.

But, hey! I’m eavesdropping, “listening in,” the fly on the wall! While they’re unaware (as is the case in fiction generally, with some rare exceptions) that, in fact, they have an audience. –That’s the “fourth-wall” convention as we generally know it, familiar in theater, and at play in fiction, too.

And, as their eavesdropping audience, out of view and unseen, I’m—again—not content just to glean what I can from what they’re actually saying (what they’ve said so far, which isn’t very much), I’m beginning even now to attribute to them, and to what they’re discussing, a tentative plot (maybe various plots) that I think might unfold as their hushed exchange progresses. That’s the guesswork involved in my effort to play “catch-up.” In a full-blown story, of course, the narrative context substantially aids the reader in interpreting the dialogue.

At any rate: they seem, these two, unsavory to me, in cahoots, bad actors of a very minor sort—not “big fish,” clearly—who’ve tried to pull off something (I’ve come in on their exchange in medias res), and who must now mull over what their next move might be. Imagine that last line  to be a grittier one, like this:

 “Ya get it?”
“Nuh. I couldn’t.”
What’re we gonna do now? Jeez.”
S’a problem. Yeah.”
Really! Boss’ll have our ass, man.”

Were that their latest line, my surmises, up to this point, might be confirmed. They’re a pair of underlings, up to no good (guys, it’s clear to me), although the key item—what are they seeking? money? a weapon? merchandize? a password or a code? an agreement of some kind?—has yet to be revealed… which “key item,” even if it is disclosed, might or might not be definitive in confirming the scenario I’ve projected onto their discourse. (Recall the shameful little household item never revealed to us in Henry James’ Ambassadors!)

But wait! Who says that women and those non-binary-gendered can’t be “bad actors,” can’t mumble and slur?! The strength of my presumption that it’s two men talking (young or middle-aged guys, not likely older men) rests on the basis of cultural assumptions that are strong and ingrained in a chauvinist society! Were the exchange to read this way, I’d have scant doubt, given our cultural norms, that it isn’t men talking:

“Did you get it?”
“I tried!”
“Oh, dear! Now what?”
“I’m so sorry! Really.”
“Hey, hon, it’s okay!”

Suspense in fiction, and in dialogue as well, is forever setting us up to fall prey to error—and hence forcing us to revise, reconsider, and often discard, our initial presumptions. Were I to dope out that these two in fact are women, even if, at first, they’ve sounded like men to me, the entire tenor of my reaction might change. I might now be hearing them more sympathetically, considering them beleaguered rather more, say, than conniving.

… And it will take very little for the whole exchange to morph! Watch what happens when the final line is altered:

Ya get it?”
“Nuh. I couldn’t.”
What’re we gonna do now? Jeez.”
S’a problem. Yeah.”
“Wow. Mom’ll be so ticked off!”

In this outcome, as in the earlier ones, the powerful figure (the Boss, the Mother) will be disgruntled—but now what a remarkable difference there will be in how we continue to “read” the scene! The ominous overtones give way to innocent ones; the shady men yield to a couple of worried kids; and the concern transmutes from a fear of serious consequences to the softer, more endearing worry of having let Mom down.

And what if (before going on), that conversation had taken this initial turn?—

So, ya get it?”
“Nuh. I couldn’t.”
“Oh, is that right!”
“I said, ‘Is that right?’”
“Hey, now! Look, man—”

We’d suddenly be on very different terrain, where an essential distrust and an absence of good will are informing the exchange. We can see, in retrospect, that the anxious “underlings” in the earlier male versions, even if (to our minds) they are blunderers of some sort, either “up to no good,” or scared of “displeasing Mom,” are speaking in good faith, neither of them having grounds to distrust the other.

Stereotyping and our provisional judgments: the “short-cuts” we all take

 Oh, in such disrepute now—the term stereotyping! And yet we can’t avoid it, it proves so efficient.

For, just as those in conversation take the shortcuts allowed them by their body of common knowledge—that presumed information that needn’t be repeated (the “vacancy” leaving the reader in the dark to play catch-up)—so we the perceiver, the one listening in, have no handy recourse, given our cognitive limitations, but to make quick sketches of what we think we’re perceiving.

And those “quick sketches” will amount to stereotypes—miniatures, as it were, of Gombrich’s cultural schemata. For what, indeed, is a stereotype, no more, no less, than our shorthand mode of initial perception, “situating” others in our broader field of understanding? The recipe is simple, involving these few elements:

the person’s social function (job, for example)
the person’s likely social status
a select few of the person’s telling characteristics

So when, years ago, I asked a person from my old home town, “Hey, do you have any memory of that funny little guy with a moustache and a limp who used to work at the PO?” the person knew exactly—and immediately—whom I meant.

social function and status: he worked at the local Post Office
telling characteristics:
……….he was male (unambiguous)
……….he had a limp and moustache (unambiguous)
……….he was “funny” and “little” (both ambiguous)

That information, imperfect as it was, as sketchy as it was, had served to place the man in our marginal acquaintance, which, in fact, is the domain where the great majority of others reside for us—which is also the domain where most of the characters in fiction reside! The larger number of fictive characters are “flat” rather than “rounded” (when you do a simple tally, though, oddly, it doesn’t always seem that way), just as, in life, our deepest understanding and true appreciation of others is confined to just a very select few. Again, that’s our cognitive limitations at work.

Stereotyping, then, becomes onerous, “prejudicial,” only when our perception of an individual or of others fails or actively declines to take ready account of more enriching information than is liable to “reach” us in our initial view of them, which constitutes an essentially shallow “first take” on them. We’ll be exploring this matter further in a craft note still to come, “Guiding Your Reader’s Eye: The Choreography of Perception.”

Suffice it, for now, to note that the “catch-up” we play while reading dialogue—the “catch-up” too, then, that we engender in writing it—is volatile and unstable in measure almost equal to the degree to which it’s sketchy, grabbed at in the dark, based on thin information… And yet for all that, very powerfully revealing.

Such is the magic of dialogue. The magic of fiction.

Read Richard Wertime’s short fiction, “Soccer,” in WTP, and find his other reflections on craft here

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