Word Choice in Dialogue: Whether the Weather

Someone walks up to you and says “I like this kind of weather.” Or, someone walks up to you and says “This is the kind of weather I like.” Then, the person walks away.

I’m sure you agree that those two phrases contain the same apparent factual information– a person has told you that the state of the weather pleases them.
You might not agree with me that these two phrases, depending on which one you include in a script, offer radically different dramatic results.
Well, you might not agree… yet.

When people open their  mouths and speak in daily life, they rarely know exactly what they are going to say. Usually we know the gist (I’m gonna say hello to Hannah) but we don’t usually consciously know the exact language we will use (Hi, Hello, Hey Hannah, Hi Hannah, Hello Hannah, Hey Sweetie) until we’ve said it.

When we are talking conversationally, we are on some level thinking out loud, rather than presenting a thought we’ve already internally completed. We discover our exact words, our precise thoughts, as we say them.

So, assume, if you will, that a series of words spoken aloud are the externalized journey of a thought, and that, when we stop talking, it is because we have finally arrived at endpoint of the particular thought we wished to discover.

That thought might be “Hey Sweetie,” or it might be, as Hamlet says at the end of a soliloquy,”The play’s the thing, wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” Either way, we open our mouths to try and find the words for a thought, and when we stop talking, it’s because we are done reaching for the thought. We feel done when we have hit the most important thing.

Consider the most important thing in each of our two phrases, the thing the speaker is reaching for. Is it the idea of weather, or is it the idea of preference?:

“I like this kind of weather.”
“This is the kind of weather I like.”

Are those two phrases the same?

Let’s get physical.
Say each phrase out loud, in front of a mirror.
“I like this kind of weather.”
“This is the kind of weather I like.”
If you do this, you will notice that the final word “like” includes a soft open mouth shape, basically a smile, which the final word “weather” does not.
How might that affect the listener, to see that smile, or not to? How might it influence how they respond? What’s the invitation being made?

“I like this kind of weather.”
“This is the kind of weather I like.”

The first statement is the story of someone finding the word for weather. With a warm and personal approach, it invites you to think about the weather, then it leaves you thinking about the weather.
The second statement invites you to think about the person. It is the story of someone deciding to tell you what they like, to open their mouth a little wider and share something personal with you.

I believe the first phrase pushes you away a little, while the second brings you closer.

Yes, this is all very granular, but here’s the bad news: so is writing. Even at its best, it happens one word at a time.

The vaudeville I’m working on, The Horse’s Ass, is a two-person play. That means the characters have nothing but each other to bounce against. If one line goes slack, it can tank the whole scene. If I don’t hear the difference between one invitation and another, the responses will be totally out of whack, the relationship between them won’t have any juice, and the play will suck.

What makes a play compelling? I think, fundamentally, it is the order in which things happen. What makes a line of dialogue compelling? I think, fundamentally, it is the same thing; the order in which things happen.

You lay down the order of things word by word, and discover with each one whether your character is frosty and backing off into safety, whether your character is warm and leaning forward with a smile.

Or, at least, I do. Or, try to!

Xoxo – Megan 

1 Comment

Filed under how.to.write, play.in.progress, sf.olympians.festival, the.horse's.ass

One Response to Word Choice in Dialogue: Whether the Weather

  1. This is exactly the kind of thing that becomes super important when you’re dealing with opera or song. Word order, and particularly how individual words are emphasized within a sentence, can completely facilitate or stifle the musical setting. “I like this kind of weather” and “This is the kind of weather I like” suggest totally different musical phrases!

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