Sunday, October 7, 2012

How to Write People: One Socially Inept Writer’s Hopeless and Sisyphean Struggle to Capture the Complexities of Human Social Behavior in Prose, Part II

By Shaun McCoy

In part I of this article we discussed how human relationships can be revealed by showing differing levels of reciprocation.  This article will take reciprocity one step farther by adding indirect speech.

When two people have different expectations of reciprocation we find conflict, and to cover up that conflict we find indirect speech. Almost everybody uses it, and readers intuitively recognize such cover-ups as natural sounding conversation. So let’s take a look at a real life example. 

Joe Bastianich was minding his own business, working for a paper reviewing restaurants in New York, when he was ordered to attempt to bribe maitre d’s to see if he could get seated without a reservation. Even though there was nothing illegal about such a bribe, Bastianich reported that he was extremely nervous about attempting this assignment. What he found was astonishing. Twenty dollars was about all that was required to get seated in even the finest of dining establishments. What is of interest to writers, however, are the things that Joe found himself saying as he offered the bribe. 

Upon being told that there were no seats available and that a reservation would be required, Joe would hold out his twenty dollar bill and say: “Could you check again?” or “Is it possible one might have just opened up?”

What odd things to say while offering a bribe. It’s not like he could pretend that he wasn’t offering the money! His words were indirect speech, a cover up for his request for a different level of reciprocity. By offering the exchange, Joe was trying to attain an exchange reciprocity.  Joe’s questions, however, maintain the fiction and feel of the maitre d’s dominance.

Now let’s take a look at indirect speech in fiction.

In the movie Fargo, Steve Buscemi is cruising down the road when he gets pulled over by a police officer. Steve hands the officer his wallet, ostensibly to show his driver’s license, but leaves a fifty dollar bill edging out of his bill fold. I’ll paraphrase below:

“I prefer to handle these matters as quickly as possible.”

He does not say: “Hey, I’ll give you fifty bucks if you make this ticket go away.” His speech maintains the fiction of the policeman’s dominance while he attempts the exchange. 

Indirect speech can cover up any level of reciprocity mismatch, and the speech doesn’t always have to be verbal. A wife in a patriarchal relationship might start vacuuming while her husband tries to watch football on TV. Passive aggressive behavior is almost always indirect speech, and in this example, maintains the fiction of the patriarch’s complete dominance while the wife secretly claims via her vacuuming that she has a right to be angry or ask for attention.

Let’s imagine a girl flirting with her waiter, or a boy with a crush on a girl on an elementary school playground, or a person assigned to torture a prisoner of war. What kind of indirect speech might these people use to cover up the relationships they really want to have?

If your sympathetic guard watches your prisoner be tortured, let’s say in Siberia, and then gives the prisoner a blanket, we might be touched. But imagine how much more poignant this scene becomes when the guard lies, saying “I hate dogs like you” while handing the blanket over. If the reader knows that the statement is a lie and sees that the guard is using indirect speech to cover their true feelings, the scene is no longer merely touching. It suddenly becomes real.

Watch for indirect speech in real life, you’re bound to see it at least once a day. It is yet another valuable tool for making your dialogue snappy, powerful, and realistic.

But wait, is there more? What other gems does cognitive psychology have to offer the writer? Find out in the exciting sequel: How to Write People: One Socially Inept Writer’s Hopeless and Sisyphean Struggle to Capture the Complexities of Human Social Behavior in Prose, Part III


Laura Puccia Valtorta said...

Interesting article. The title is longer than the body of the piece. How about using a husband vacuuming while the wife is trying to watch "Shark Tank." Thanks for reminding me of that scene in Fargo.

Shaun said...

While watching shark tank? Oh no he didn't! I hope you pulled the plug :)