“‘No’ Dialogue”? What the Hey?

I was scrolling around today and found some good cautions for us all about creating realistic story lines in our fiction. I especially like the first warning:

Stop having characters read each other’s minds by looking into their eyes!

It has often occurred to me that it’s not “the eyes” that convey emotion anyway. It’s the facial muscles around and below the eyes that make them cruel or sad or joyous. So note to self: be careful about using this trope.

Today, though, I especially want to pick up on the point that it’s okay if characters can’t always tell exactly what the other person is thinking.

Question mark in the clouds: What is "'No' Dialogue"?

Ambiguous communication opens the way for that revealing dialogue tactic, “‘No’ Dialogue.”

I’ve scoured the remains of my film-writing library (used only for one intense period in my writing life) looking for the book that introduced me to this terminology. You won’t find this phrase with search terms, which return sites about films without dialogue. In contrast, in “‘No’ Dialogue” one character refuses to give the other what he or she wants without ever quite saying so.

The technique delivers “subtext,” what’s really going on below the surface, without the characters having to stop the story to explain. At the same time, it builds tension, as the main character cannot get what he or she wants. Here are a few lines from that wonderful scene between Bud White and Lynn Bracken in L. A. Confidential (warning: I’ve ** the bad words, but you’ll still know what they are):

BUD

Miss Bracken, don’t ever try to f**king bribe me or threaten me or I’ll have you and Patchett in s**t up to your ears.

LYNN

I remember you from Christmas Eve. You have a thing for helping women, don’t you, Officer White?

BUD

Maybe I’m just f**king curious.

LYNN

You say “f**k” a lot.

BUD

You f**k for money.

LYNN

There’s blood on your shirt. Is that an integral part of your job?

BUD

Yeah.

LYNN

Do you enjoy it?

BUD

When they deserve it.

LYNN

Did they deserve it today?

BUD

Last night. And I’m not sure.

LYNN

But you did it anyway.

BUD

Yeah, just like the half dozen guys you screwed today.

LYNN

Actually, it was two.

Dialogue like this is a verbal contest—instant conflict—in which each character refuses to acknowledge what is actually being asked, which is “What kind of person are you?” because answering that question would set in motion a terrifying commitment. Yet we know from their refusals to state the obvious what it is that bothers them about themselves, what they’re struggling with behind the repartee, what they’re trying to deny.

In only one place in this exchange does Bud answer the question Lynn actually asks: “Did they deserve it today?” And when Bud finally answers, his tough-guy façade slips. “I’m not sure.” That uncertainty has been there all along, as she throws him off balance and disrupts his self-image. When his doubt emerges, it’s a surrender he didn’t plan and a giveaway to what lies ahead.

And note that we get this many-layered interaction between two people searching for the possibility of something more than what lies before them without a single reference to the look in their eyes.

Although many writing coaches don’t use the term”‘No’ Dialogue,” several suggest ways of incorporating this technique into your stories.

  • Janet Burroway, in Writing Fiction (I’m looking at the 5th edition), analyzes examples in which “[t]ension and drama are heightened when characters are constantly (in one form or another) saying no to each other.”
  • Lew Hunter, in Screenwriting 434, suggests “180-degree dialogue,” in which a writer looks for “the most obvious line a character can say,” then “flip[s] it upside down.” “See where that takes the moment,” he says.
  • Jack M. Bickham, in Scene & Structure, discusses “dialogue at cross-purposes,” in which “the antagonist either doesn’t understand what’s really at issue, or is purposely nonresponsive to what the lead character keeps trying to talk about.”

In my own case, when I’ve felt that a scene has really delivered at least some of the impact I hoped for, I’ve looked back to see that “‘No’ Dialogue” has played a role in that success.

Do you have favorite scenes where one or more of these versions of “‘No’ Dialogue” has served the story well? Share!

 

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