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I've asked questions in the past about dialogue and I've read some questions about balancing dialogue with plot, however I have discovered yet another corner case in my writing. In my story Cured, the main character (Tony) who has taken a pill to increase his empathy is discussing his relationship with the pill with a chaplain.

I want this conversation to happen, because Tony needs to address some things about the pill he can't do on his own without making the story huge. Here's what I want the conversation to cover:

  1. Tony's fear that he can't function without the pill and what that means.
  2. Tony's discomfort with being beholden to something artificial and external.

Here's what I've come up with after multiple re-writes:

"How," I ask, "do you deal with the contradiction that every moment you live, you should be helping reduce the humongous amount of suffering in the world, but you don't."
"I'm lucky enough to be in a position where I can every day."
"But I mean for the average person. All I ever hear is the cliche 'try your best', but what does that even mean?"
"Well, try to notice the people around you and understand that their lives are just as meaningful as your own."
"But apathy is always holding you back. What if, hypothetically, you could take a pill that made you more emotionally sensitive to other people's suffering. Would you take it?"
"Of course. Assuming that it has no ulterior cost."
"But it's hard being empathetic. It tires you and it makes it easier for people to take advantage of you."
"Assuming that you can avoid exploitation with thoughtfulness, it sounds like a move in the right direction to me."
"But it stops you from being happy. It's not natural."
"What's your natural state like?"
"Hypothetically?"
"Hypothetically."
"It sucks. I know that I should care, but I can never make the first step. I keep drifting. Maybe I'm bad at being a human being."
"Being a good human being isn't a default state. It's something you and I will always be learning. If your definitions of right and wrong didn't change since you were five, you would be seen as a menace to society."
"So nature isn't ideal?"
"Not always. But you just have to keep in mind moderation. I'm assuming you only have a hypothetical pill and not a hypothetical brain control device accompanying it."
"Just the pill. But even if it isn't addictive, a pill is still a dependency, shouldn't my solution come from within myself?"
"Well, what is the self? Actually, let's not go there. Why do you think the solution has to come from yourself?"
"Because it's more admirable?"
"Doesn't having to care offer enough admirable struggles?"
"But if you take the pill, you're no longer in control."
"The way I see it, control is when you're still able to define and choose your own choices. This passes that test. You create the choice of caring and you enable it when you take the pill."
"The hypothetical pill, which you hypothetically can't tell the cops about because this is a religious practice."
"Hypothetically."

I'm tying to find the balance between making the dialogue sound like it's skipping over an important topic and the dialogue being excessively dry.

Orson Scott Card does this type of dialogue really well and I'm going to try and find an example of that once I can get my hands on one of his books. Until then, any suggestions about where my dialogue might be going wrong (or if I'm wrong to try and shove this type of development into a dialogue in the first place) are greatly appreciated.

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5 Answers 5

up vote 9 down vote accepted

The classic solution is to introduce conflict or tension. These naturally intrigue the reader and command his attention. Any conflict, no matter how minor or subtle, is enough to engage the reader's curiosity to find out what happens next.

In this context, "conflict" and "tension" are pretty much any negative outcome to the conversation that your protagonist is worried about - possibly in direct opposition to some goal of the chaplain's. For example:

  • Tony is afraid the chaplain will not take him seriously.
  • Tony doesn't take the chaplain seriously, and doubts he'll be helpful even as he's asking for help.
  • Tony is afraid that the chaplain, who is such a wiser, kinder man than Tony considers himself to be, will give Tony good advice - that weak, inferior Tony will be too weak to follow.
  • Tony wants the chaplain's advice, but he's afraid the chaplain will also guilt Tony over his dwindling devoutness.
  • The chaplain would want the pill for himself if he discovered its existence; Tony needs to disguise how very non-hypothetical this conversation is.
  • Pre-pill, Tony did something mean to the chaplain (maybe the chaplain did something unpleasant first). The conversation begins with Tony apologizing, but the whole conversation, maybe one (or both) are still mad at the other, and/or afraid the other's still mad at them.

This is a wide variety of tensions, of different types and intensities. Any one you choose gives you plenty of room to write little anxieties into the dialogue, and to lead into a small, satisfying wrap-up.

If you're deliberately avoiding conflict/tension, a little dullness is just fine. Sometimes you really don't want tension in a particular scene - I could see a chaplain scene serving as a calm interlude between noisier, tenser scenes; maybe you don't want conflict here because it'd be wrong for the pacing and for the atmosphere you're aiming at. If that's the case, don't get too worried if the scene's a little slow and quiet. Slow and quiet might be what you want here.

Consider adding a colorful counterpoint. What you've got here is abstract, philosophical dialogue. Which addresses important subjects, but yeah, can get pretty dry. An approach that's more superficial than conflict/tension, but also simpler, is to simply provide the "dry" content along with some additional element that gives more flavor. Give the chaplain memorable behavior and personality; focus Tony's attention on the grandeur (or the shabbiness) of the church where they're speaking; or go further afield - maybe the conversation is taking place as the two of them are setting up tables for a bake sale. Maybe they're at a bowling alley. Any additional major element in the scene will give you a counterpoint to the dialogue, which you can shift to briefly when you feel the dialogue is getting cumbersome.

A good way to make the discussion less abstract is to use a concrete mirror or echo. This is a particular sub-case of the counterpoint method, but it has added value because it's not merely a superficial distraction. The idea here is that your "counterpoint" element should be some sort of thematic reflection of the topic being discussed. As a simple example, let's say the discussion is taking place on a street corner, where Tony's helping the chaplain hand out fliers asking for donations meant for the needy. They're talking about the notion of kindness, but at the same time, they're also doing something, an attempt to appeal to the kindness of strangers. Their actions and their opinions complement each other, for example:

  • Try to notice the people around you -- just as a crowd of people passes, ignoring them completely.
  • It tires you and it makes it easier for people to take advantage of you. -- Tony notes that the chaplain is shivering in the cold, clearly suffering from being out in the street.
  • Maybe the chaplain zooms in on one particular person, harangues him for a couple of minutes, and gets a generous donation out of him. The stranger's donation mirrors Tony's own ability to be kind - but only in response to an external, artificial stimulus.

You could take "thematic mirroring" in a billion different ways. Maybe a teenage offender is helping out at the church, as a punishment for some misdeed he's done - helpful, but not of his own volition. Maybe the chaplain is a thoroughly ineffective character - he's all good will and kindness, but he never manages do actually help anybody substantially; just the reverse of where Tony's at. Etcetera, etcetera. Choosing something themeatically significant as a counterpoint is great because it makes the counterpoint seem meaningful and connected; it adds depth to the story while simultaneously easing the pressure of the abstract dialogue.

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You have perfectly highlighted how to use setting and imagery to augment my story. Thank you for giving me the tools to improve my writing. –  Seanny123 Oct 6 '13 at 14:43

IMHO, you need to break up the back and forth dialog. There's too much of it in a row. I kept losing track of who was speaking. Plus, it sounds like a script, but I (as the reader) had to supply all of the acting, for both actors. For example, on the line after

"...easier for people to take advantage of you"

you could have

The chaplain laughed. I was preaching to the choir. "Yes, there's always that danger. But assuming you can avoid..."

Help the reader imagine the interaction going on. A conversation is never just words. Do they look at each other, at the floor, out the window? Do either of them hesitate, take time to think of a response? If so, what do they do?

Also, does either one ever consider saying something, then say something else? (I see it's 1st person narrative, so probably also 1st person POV. Take that into account, obviously.)

You wouldn't want to do this for every line of dialog. That would get tiresome. Only at key points.

Oh, also: He's a chaplain. He ought to mention religious stuff at some point, without being pushy about it. (Example: Instead of him admitting nature isn't always ideal, have him wonder if nature was ever ideal, and sadly conclude that nature is now fallen. The fallen nature of the questioner would then be his rationale for advising moderation, even in empathy.) If your chaplain sounded more like a chaplain and less like a philosopher, it would be easier to tell his speech from the protagonist's.

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RE adding action. Even throw in quick, simple things. "Tony thought a moment. Then he replied ..." Or, "The chaplain laughed. 'Okay, hypothetically.'" Etc. This helps break up the dialog, and gives you an opportunity to make clear who's speaking without endless repetitive "Tony said ..."/"The chaplain said ..." –  Jay Oct 7 '13 at 15:41

One thing you should do -- and I think you've done it pretty well here, I'm just pointing this out so if you don't realize it, you don't screw it up later -- is to make it sound like a conversation and not like people reading from a textbook. I've read plenty of "philosophical interludes" in stories where the characters all speak in long sentences with big words that are completely grammatically correct. Of course real people don't talk like that, and so it sounds artificial.

I think the conversation you have is pretty good. Yes, it's all philosophical, and if there's a lot of that in the story that's going to make it appeal to a certain type of reader. But all writing appeals to a "certain type of reader". A story filled with car chases and things blowing up probably appeals to a different type of reader.

One more thought: It's good to present opposing viewpoints in a conversation like this. Let one character be saying that the pill is a good thing and the other that the pill is a bad thing. They don't have to be screaming at each other. The tone of the story might be that someone just says, "Well, but have you considered ..." But if you do, try not to make one point of view an absurd caricature. I always hate it when I read a story that has a conversation between, whatever, a liberal and a conservative, or a Christian and an atheist, or a pacifist and a militarist, or whatever, and one side or the other is portrayed as a completely irrational idiot, whose every argument is mind-numbingly stupid, and it's just overwhelmingly obvious which side the author is on. I think it's much more interesting when both sides sound rational. And surely if you imagine that an idea you are proposing would be controversial, that must mean that you can think of arguments for either side that would be convincing to some people, if not to you.

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You mention “Tony's fear that he can't function without the pill and what that means”.

Think of a specific thing that Tony is afraid he won’t be able to do without the pill, and organize the dialogue around that fear.

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A good question is always:

What makes a conversion interesting for you in real life, and how do you perceive it?

Usually you do not just hear the words spoken and see or perceive nothing else. Even if you are on the telephone, stuff will happen around you or you will stare at the blank wall and see things in your minds eye. Introduce this into your dialogue, because it can reflect what the dialogue means to the characters. Descripe guestures, facial expressions that reflect the emotions of the characters: "While John spoke, Pete looked at a passing girl, obviously bored with Johns monologue, but he turned his attention back at him, when ...", or describe how their minds wander: "While John kept on about how Sue had left him, I thought back to how she had left me for John a year before."

If you find your dialogue tedious to listen to, summarize it: "John explained to Pete how he had felt when he met Sue [and we know this, because we read the last chapters, so you don't have to report it here again], but he stopped when I noticed how Pete didn't appear to be listening but kept watching the girls walking by."

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