I recently listened to a Ted Talk by British psychologist Elizabeth Stokoe, who analyses patterns, rhythms and wording in conversations. From her talk, I distilled a few interesting points that could be applied when writing a dialogue for fiction, and I’d like to share them with you:
- Are you willing? If a person is given a sense of control or authority in the situation, they’re far more likely to cooperate. If you ask, “Do you want this service / action to happen?” you may draw a blank response; but if you ask that person, “Would you be willing to receive this service / be willing to see X happen?” you’re more likely to get a positive response.
- How did you…? When you want to find out particular information from a person, how and when you ask for that information in the course of a conversation / dialogue greatly decreases or increases your chances of getting a positive response / reply. If rapport is first established, they are much more willing to reply.
- Why did you / were you…? If an open-ended question is asked, target information may not come; but if a target-specific question is asked non-confrontationally, the desired information is more certain. “Why did you do X?” or “Where have you been?” are both confrontational, and the reaction will likely be evasive or defensive. But if you instead say, “I was wondering what your reasons for doing X were… could you explain?” or “I tried to reach you earlier, and was wondering where you were”, these are more likely to get a more positive response, or to solicit the information you’re searching for.
- Any or Some? “Any” tends to elicit a negative response or a refusal, while “some” invites a more positive response. A simple example is, “Would you like any tea?” – this implies an unwillingness or a reluctance on the speaker’s part to provide, whereas, “Would you like some tea?” implies the assumption of a positive response, and is thus more likely to solicit an affirmative response. In both cases the person asked may want tea, but would be unwilling to coerce the one offering if they have the impression that the offer is made unwilling through the use of “any”.
When applying these ideas to writing a dialogue, a positive application will move your characters closer to a solution or resolution, whereas the negative application will lead them more toward miscommunication and conflict; depending on what you need to happen, you choose which way the dialogue takes your characters, and thus your readers.