Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Is There Such a Thing as Pointless Conversation?

My student daughter came into my room at the weekend, puzzled by a text conversation she was having with another girl, a sometime student on her course who she hadn't seen for 6 months. The conversation went something like this:

A - Hey, how are u? x
B - I'm good, how are u?
A - I'm fine. It's been ages. Hows everything going?
B - I'm at home, going up to London in a few days.
A - oh v nice. How is it in Bath then. Is the weather nice? Are u in London over the summer? I'm back home myself.
B - Yes the weather's lovely. I've got my room this summer, but I don't think I'll be living there. Have u still got your flat?
A - Yeah it's lovely here too. Hope it lasts. Nice. I moved out of my flat so not going back. Any plans over the summer, holidays or anything?
B - I'm not sure, will probably go somewhere but not sure when or where, how about u?

And at this point, B, my daughter, turned to me and said 'What IS this conversation about?'

I asked her what she meant. She said:

' You'd think she'd get to the point. Usually, I kind of start off with a bit of the point so it's hinted in the conversation what the point is, and then I move it through the conversation. You start with the point of why you're texting. Surely that's the question you'd ask - how's X, have you seen Y. She doesn't seem to want anything.' Daughter looks at phone in puzzled way. 'I mean, I don't think she wants anything except maybe to keep contact but I don't know what she wants. It's weird.'

In real life we don't have pointless conversations. Subconsciously we're making points, and we're on the alert for the points the other person is either making or hoping to make. When we can't see the point we think it's weird.

It's exactly the same with dialogue in fiction. When we can't see 'the point' of the dialogue we give up reading. Your characters should know what points they're making - it could be anything such as establishing a relationship, angling for information, working round to asking a favour. But there should be points to be made, and you as the writer should know what they are. Otherwise your readers will be looking at your dialogue and thinking...weird.


Jim Murdoch said...

The thing is if that conversation had been in a play then it could be brimming with meaning but it would all be in the body language and the intonation and that’s the problem with prose, we have to describe all that stuff separately whereas in the real world we’re able to cope with simultaneous streams of data. It’s not what you say, it’s the way that you say it, as they say. FYI the American writer Thorne Smith has been called the “master of the pointless conversation.”

Diandra said...

This is not 100% correct. A lot of conversation during the day does take place to establish and maintain emotional contact with the persons surrounding you, so the conversation itself can be pointless, acting as a placeholder for "Hey, I thought about you. I don't want you to think I forgot you. I'm showing interest in your life." If you want to try this, reduce your talking to only the things that need to be said and are to the point for a day. (Be careful: Some people may hate you at the end of the day.)

In writing, however, this kind of dialogue gets boring quickly.

Sarah Duncan said...

But that's my point - it would have meaning added by all the other stuff. I chat with my family and friends to cement our emotional connections - that's the point of those aimless conversations. I think. Or maybe we're just v boring.

In writing, boring dialogue can be made electric by all the subtext around it, but that's where 'the point' lies.