Context in Conversation

by limebirdster

At University I had a habit of using non gender-specific names in short scripts and seeing what conclusions people would automatically draw from the dialogue. In a scene about domestic violence the victim was seen as female and the aggressor as male, despite the piece containing no information about the characters except their names.

We were telling ghost stories at work today when the idea of context in dialogue came up. The following phone call has no additional prose except for a brief sentence setting up the scene at the beginning –

Sam walks out of the venue in the midst of a large crowd, heading for the train station. Just past the doors a phone rings and Sam pulls it out of a pocket.

‘Hello?’
‘Are you in the crowd?’
‘What? I can’t hear you very well.’
‘You’re in the crowd.’
‘Outside the stadium?’
‘What are you wearing? Did you leave through the main door? I can see you.’
‘What? Where?’
‘You’re wearing a blue jacket, by the service gate.’
‘Where are you?’
‘I’m coming towards you.’

Now perhaps if I hadn’t just mentioned ghost stories you’d fill in the blanks of that conversation a little differently. But by adding a few sentences it came easily become a friendly conversation –

Sam walks out of the venue in the midst of a large crowd, heading for the train station and looking around for Alex. Just past the doors a phone rings and Sam pulls it out of a pocket.


‘Hello?’

‘Are you in the crowd?’

‘What?’ Sam covers one ear, trying to block out the noise of the surrounding people. ‘I can’t hear you very well.’

‘You’re in the crowd,’ Alex shouts, speaking slowly.

Sam nods. ‘Outside the stadium?’

Sam strains to see above the surrounding people, looking for Alex.

‘I can see you,’ Alex says excitedly, waving enthusiastically, but the crowd is too thick for Sam to notice.


‘What?’ Sam says, turning in a complete circle to try and find Alex and almost getting knocked over.

‘Where?’

‘You’re wearing a blue jacket, by the service gate.’

Sam looks to the left where a large service gate is bolted shut.

‘Where are you?’

‘I’m coming towards you.’

Sam continues to be pushed forwards by the crowd, jumping every couple of steps to try and find Alex and before long, the mass of moving people brings them together. Sam grabs onto Alex’s sleeve so they don’t get separated again and they carry on towards the station.

But if we filled the gaps with something else, the same conversation can take on a completely different meaning –

Sam walks out of the venue in the midst of a large crowd, just past the doors a phone rings and Sam pulls it out of a pocket.

‘Hello?’ Sam asks, the number of the call was withheld.

‘Are you in the crowd?’ Says an unfamiliar voice.

‘What?’ Sam covers one ear, trying to block out the noise of the surrounding people. ‘I can’t hear you very well.’

‘You’re in the crowd.’

Sam looks around at the surrounding sea of strangers and sees no one familiar.

Outside the stadium?’ Sam asks uncertainly, scanning the mass of people for someone who is talking on a phone, but everyone is packed together too densely to see very far.

What are you wearing? Did you leave through the main door?’ Sam looks back to the main gate, which the steadily moving crowd is trudging away from. ‘I can see you.’

What?’ Sam says, frantically turning in a complete circle and almost getting knocked over. ‘Where?’
‘You’re wearing a blue jacket, by the service gate.’

Sam stops despite the complaints of the nearest people, and looks to the left where a large service gate is bolted shut.

Where are you?’ Sam whispers, gripping the phone so tightly that it is almost painful.

‘I’m coming towards you.’

The blood drains from Sam’s face but the crowd continues to surge forwards and Sam is pushed along with it, stumbling on to where Alex is waiting.

Now I know that this scene isn’t amazing, refusing to specify whether or not Sam is male or female makes everything a little clunky. But if their gender was mentioned, the conversation would, again, take on a new meaning. Sam being a girl makes the last example more sinister, especially if Alex is a man. But then Alex being a girl would also bring a new shade to the story.

I was completely fascinated with this for a while, seeing how many people drew the same conclusions from very little information. So, how do you like to do things? Lots of details or hardly any? Do you like to leave room for interpretation or do you think that takes away from the story?

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23 Comments to “Context in Conversation”

  1. Great post Ster! I love doing this too. I think I actually did a post (including a short story) along these lines a while ago – http://limebirdwriters.co.uk/2011/12/08/short-story-why-not/ and a 100 word story a while back I also did a domestic violence story – http://limebirdwriters.co.uk/2012/03/16/100-word-challenge-but-i-turned-it-off/ So, yes I also like doing this! Haha! 🙂

    • Thanks Beth! Haha, I do think it’s very interesting to see what conclusions different people jump to. And it’s always nice to be able to surprise people, It’d be boring if we were all predictable all the time!

  2. Hey LimeBirdSter, I love this post. It opened up my mind to the idea of the psychology of writing (or readers). In terms of your questions, I think I like to leave a fair bit of room for interpretation. However, I would probably not force my reader to interpret something as important as the gender of my characters. This is all very well as an experiment, but I feel I would be annoyed as a reader if I felt I’d been tricked by the author!

    Great post. Love it.

  3. Nice post. I like the technique of naked dialog (where it doesn’t say who says what). I just got through reading “Our Lady of the Forest” by David Guterson and he uses that technique very well. I think if your characters are done well, it does not slow down the reading one bit and seems smoother and more natural…as if you are there.

  4. Interesting exercise and I like the psychology angle, the meaning of the story is so subjective. Taken at its value as an exercise it is pretty cool.
    Not being able to tell the gender of the characters in a book I’m reading would bug me though, and prevent me from identifying with them. I don’t usually continue with a story if I can’t identify with someone in it.

    • I totally agree Neeks, I suppose it’s more of an exercise than a technique for writing an entire novel! I think it can work quite well in short stories though, if you want a surprise at the end!

  5. With dialogue and with lots of others things, I like leaving room for interpretation. I like to keep the reader guessing. This is probably because that’s the way I like to read. Putting the pieces of the story together as I go along. A lot of people don’t like that very much which kinda sucks for me, as a writer, doing what I wanna do. Lol. But that’s fine. Everything isn’t for everyone. I like keeping the mystery in the story and the characters. I don’t see the need to spoon feed everything. At the same time, I’m not into confusing readers either. It’s a fine line.

  6. This is such a cool concept. I don’t usually leave a ton of room for interpretation in my novels, but this is definitely something that I’m going to try the next time I write a short story. It really is interesting how much changes when you add a few more details. 🙂

  7. Oh wow, that’s amazing! So many different conclusions to be drawn from the same exact piece of dialogue. Hmm. Well I personally like to leave a little bit up to the reader, but not so much that it gets confusing. My general method is to lay down the base and then let the reader build on top. …I know they’re going to build a house, but it’s style can vary from terrace, to detached, to bungalow… y’know?

    • You’re definately right Ileandra, too much room for interpretation does get confusing! I think it’s best used in a short piece, be that a short story or just a chapter, if you want to have a surprise at the end. The house is a great example, you just need to lay the foundations and what they construct on top of it is up to them.

  8. I love this demonstration! Personally, I prefer to keep things open for interpretation on shorter pieces and give a bit more detail on longer pieces. I still hadn’t realized how generic it could actually get and how much a little context changes so very much.

  9. Gender non-specificity is an interesting issue, Ster. Thanks for bringing it up.

    Personally, I think it works better in short fiction, as a long piece could potentially suffer from the constant obfuscation, especially from a word choice perspective. (No pronouns? The mind reels!) Though, it’s quite fascinating to see how the subconscious brain assigns gender roles to names and actions.

    I remember Dan O’Bannon talking about writing the script for the movie ALIEN (1979). In said script, none of the characters were assigned specific genders: Ripley was simply Ripley, Dallas was Dallas, and so on. Quite interesting, when you consider the last scenes of the film….

    In some ways, I think of gender non-specificity as a sort of cat-and-mouse game between writer and reader. It can be plenty of fun, and it can open up all sort of fascinating dialogue, as you mention. Desexualization in this regard can be empowering for characters, especially what might be considered traditional female characters. But desexualizing characters can also dehumanize them. You may want this for a particular story (a monster story like ALIEN, for example), but I think necessary care has to be taken so you (or the reader) keep a sense of connection with the characters, as well.

    Nice post! Very thought-provoking. 🙂

    • I agree Mayumi, it does work better in shorter pieces. Scripts were definately what I started thinking about this with, I found it interesting to leave genders out of the casting notes and then see who the director would cast and what assumptions they would make about the characters based only on what they said.

      You’re right about needing a sense of connection, I think that’s why it works better in short pieces, it would be quite frustrating to read a novel and have no idea who the main character actually was!

  10. Fascinating examples — I need to look at my writing and see if I can tell the difference.

  11. Interesting post. I guess when I write I try to be very precise so my readers know what’s happening to who and why. The only exception would be toward the end of a chapter when I want to create a cliff hanger or at the very beginning of a book when I want to draw the reader in–then I’m often very nebulous. It creates questions that the reader hopefully feels compelled to read in order to find the answers.

    • Thanks Lorna! The end of a chapter is definately a great place to be ambiguous, cliffhangers and questions will always keep your reader interested. I don’t really think you could keep up the mystery for an entire novel, at some point you’re going to have to give some information about your main character or no one will be able to relate to them!

  12. Context is everything. Interesting exercise. Nice post Ster! 🙂

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