Goals in Dialogue
All conversations center around a topic. The topic may change over time, but typically there is one focus at any given time. In turn, every character participating in the conversation has a goal in mind. Typically a dialogue goal will center around information, either trying to learn, impart, or conceal information. For example, two characters in a car might debate whether to take the highway or stay on back roads. The focus of the conversation is determining which route they’ll take.
However, sometimes people lose sight of their goals; they drift, reacting to what others are saying instead of focusing on their own goals within the conversation. Consider the following example:
“Let’s go on a trip.”
“We’ll need to find someone to watch the dog.”
“I’m sure your mother wouldn’t mind.”
“Actually she already said that last time was ‘the last time’.”
“Really? But I thought she liked dogs.”
“So did she.”
“I wonder what changed her mind?”
Notice how the conversation shifts from one topic to another. It’s not intentional, just curiosity. One question leads to another, and the new topic is interesting enough to distract the characters from what they were originally talking about.
Conflicting dialogue is where each character is trying to have a different conversation. The most common form is “conversation” vs “no conversation”, where a character offers short, succinct responses, specifically designed to make the other character work for every scrap of information they gain.
“That’s a nice car.”
“What year is it?”
“They don’t make ‘em like this anymore.”
“No they don’t.”
“Would you ever consider selling this car?”
“Well if you ever change your mind, here’s my card.”
(Takes the card.)
“Nice meeting you.”
Notice how the second character always replies with the fewest words possible. They aren’t rude per say, but they are terse, using as few words as possible. And with the exception of “84” and “No”, none of their remarks actually add to the conversation. They agree with the first speaker that it’s a nice car, that “they don’t make ‘em like this anymore”, and that it was nice to meet. This is clearly a person who does not want to continue the conversation, but they are still trying to be polite even as they discourage the other speaker.
The other type of conversation conflict is “conversation” vs “different conversation”. Typically one or more characters are a bit “inside themselves”, not really listening to what the other person is saying because they’re thinking out loud. A good example of this occurs in an anime called FLCL, episode 01.
Haruko: What’s underneath the band-aid?
Naota: You’re really… freaky.
Haruko: Under the band-aid. What’s it like? Tell me.
Naota: I don’t know.
Haruko: You’re lying. You saw it.
Naota: Something strange is happening.
Haruko: What are you hiding under the band-aid?
Naota: You did it, didn’t you?
Haruko: You should know about your own head!
Naota: …Because you hit me there!
Haruko: Let’s see it!!!
Naota: You came here with my father, why don’t you go sleep with him!?!?!
Notice how the two speakers start out on the same page, but quickly drift apart. Tension mounts as each speaker becomes more intense, until one of them reaches the inevitable breaking point that shocks the other one out of it.
Collaborative dialogue, in contrast, is when two or more characters work together to continue the conversation. In improv they call it the “yes and” technique, the idea that whatever someone says, the other character(s) add to it, essentially saying “yes and (more information)”. If Mark asks Bill a question, Bill offers a complex answer. For example:
Mark asks, “How are you today?”
Bill could answer “Good,” or “Good, and you?” but neither of those contribute much to the conversation.
Instead Bill responds with “I’m doing alright. A little tired from work, but there’s nothing unusual about that.”
This response offers a lot of information, to Mark and to the audience. Here are a few possible responses Mark could make.
“Oh. I’m sorry to hear that.”
“They still got you working late?”
“Have you ever considered finding a new job?”
“Yeah, I know what you mean. Lately I feel like I barely get home and it’s time to head back.”
Consider how each piece of dialogue reveals different things about Mark; his personality, and what he knows. This would be an example of a collaborative conversation, where each character offers a complex response, either in the form of a statement or a question, which adds new information to the conversation, and gives the other character something to respond to.
Questions & Statements