Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Joy of Human Interaction

Stop me if you've heard this one:

Sometimes, conversations don't go as planned.

That's because, instead of this:

What actually happens is this:

Because, as my beloved boss says (often), we are f#$%ing human (yes, he is also a psychologist).

Speaker has thoughts in her head. But those thoughts have to get translated into words. Phrases. Sentences. Uhs, Ums, sighs, and pauses. Then add body language, not to mention feelings about what she is saying, thoughts about Listener and how she might respond ... Speaker is unlikely to say exactly what she intends. 

And then.

Listener, whose head is also full of thoughts, hears ... something. Maybe she missed a word or two. Or focused on the tone of voice. Or words instead of body language. Or what's on the menu for dinner. Then whatever Listener heard gets filtered through her experience and relationship with Speaker, as well as Listener's hopes, fears, expectations, and agenda.

Of course, that's only ONE conversational exchange. In your standard conversation, there are NUMEROUS exchanges, all with the potential for misinerpretation, escalating emotions ...

Yeah. It's a wonder we understand each other at all.

For which writers should be thankful. If humans were perfect communicators, our novels wouldn't be very long. And there would be ZERO tension. In real life, being misunderstood is maddening. Misunderstanding can strain or even end relationships. In fiction, it's glorious and necessary.

As you write dialogue and scenes between characters, think about this. If your characters always say exactly what they mean, and the listener understands exactly what the speaker intends to say, then you've got a problem. Your scene will be flat, things will be too convenient, and it won't be complex enough to hold the reader's interest.

The tension, the frustration, the anticipation we feel as readers often comes from the author's ability to depict humans as they actually communicate. Imperfectly.

Do you ever struggle with the problem of perfect communication in your writing?


  1. Oh, yes! BRILLIANT post! It's extremely relevant for me at the moment, because I've just had my ms critiqued by a freelance editor. While said editor had some good advice, he/she did have trouble with the fact that the reader can see clearly how my two characters feel about each other, whereas my characters . . . can't. I was surprised that this could be considered a problem (but will take the criticism graciously!).
    My novel is told from both characters' perspective, and my beta readers have discussed how much tension this added, and yes, frustration - but in a good way. It's the type of novel where you want to slap the characters upside the head and lock them in a room together. It creates the 'will they?/won't they?' scenario, which is what life is all about, isn't it?
    Because you're right - if my characters had fessed up at the start, my novel would be one chapter long. What I have instead is a STORY!

  2. O.M.G. I SO needed this post right now. I'm on the cusp of revising and needed to inject more of this very topic into my scenes. THANK. YOU!!!!!!

  3. Great post! I love your diagrams btw. I am a diagram junkie.
    I am trying so hard to communicate the way I want to in my writing. It's an ongoing struggle and challenge!

  4. This post is fantastic. I would imagine most people struggle with this in normal life, but the fact that we're writers must make it worse. I mean, we analyze everything as it is. Great post!

  5. I sure do!

    And this is really tough to tackle when writing because of course the words spoken are only like about one fourth or so of what is communicated. Body language, tone of voice, eye contact, context ... there are so many other aspects to human communication that are very difficult to get across in dialogue without going on forever, which, unfortunately, I am wont to do.

    The good thing, as you pointed out, is that this makes for much more compelling stories, yay!

  6. Jaime made an excellent point! If most people talked/thought/communication this "right way", all novels I've read (romance) would be done in chapter one.

    And, sigh, I've done something different for book #5, and I hope (fingers crossed) that I've hit this post (nail) right on the head!


  7. Love this :D

    As for having a problem with perfect conversation... Yes and no. My MC is an aspie and if she wants she can listen very well - and she'd be able to repeat what was said verbatim. But all the same, she takes everything quite literal. The problem lies, mostly not in hearing something else, but interpreting something else.
    If she doesn't want to - she simply won't even hear what is said. It's makes imperfect conversations easier for me as writer (but incredibly frustrating for the other characters) ;-)

  8. Thanks for commenting, everyone! Jaime, Justine, and Marieke--the trick is to show enough about what's going on so that your reader doesn't conclude the characters are stupid. I've felt this way at times when it's not clear enough WHY the MC is unable to say what he/she means.

    Laura, Jennifer and Lydia--thanks! Lydia--I used Visio and then Snagit. I am a lover of the diagram as well!

    Matt--you are so right. Dialogue must flow, but you also have to paint a picture for readers so they can interpret thoughts/motivations even when things aren't presented as inner thoughts or said out loud.

  9. Excellent post! Can be very effective in creating realistic dialogue. At the same time... don't you hate those films that are completely based on this? Like, if the two lead characters had just had one honest conversation at the beginning of the film than everything that followed could have been avoided? That makes me crazy.

    I took an interpersonal communication class in university and left with the firm conviction that it was a class every high school student should have to take. Just imagine!

  10. Thanks! ^.^ Yeah, I agree! So far it seems to be working, but it's something I asked my crit partners to keep an eye out for. Not just to keep frustration levels from rising too high, but because it's essential to the story - it's told through the eyes of my MC, in first person. :)