You have your setting. You have your plot. You have your characters…
Now you have to let them interact. The most obvious interactions are character to character, but all three have to mix to create the conflict and resolution of your narrative.
Character to Character Interaction: Dialogue and body language
The most obvious of character to character interactions is dialogue. The biggest problem with dialogue is that – in real life – a great deal of our communication is unspoken, because human beings have a sophisticated system of displaying emotions and complicates this with gestures and body posture and other nonverbal cues. This is hard to translate onto the page, and only partially because we don’t really notice a lot of this communication on a conscious level.
There are five main functions of nonverbal communication in human beings:
- To express complex emotions
- To express information about events and attitudes
- For emphasis during speech
- Presentation of personality
- Social rituals
For example, when most people say ‘hello’, they also do an eyebrow flash, where they rapidly raise their eyebrows and drop them again. You don’t notice when you doing it, and you generally don’t notice the other person doing it (but I’m predicting you will now notice it for the next day or so). It is when someone doesn’t do the eyebrow flash that you notice something awry. You sense that they may be aggressive or disinterested. Now, how do you convey that gesture – or the lack of it – onto the page?
As well, so much of a conversation is conveyed by grunts and sounds. Most of us know about ‘hmmm’, ‘um’ and ‘er’, but there a dozens of more sounds in a normal conversation, ‘duh’, ‘uh-huh’, ‘gah’, ‘tsk’, yawning, gasping, sighing, moaning, hissing through your teeth, and I could go on and on. How much of this do you include in your text? And if you added in all the incomplete sentences that people make, your dialogue would end up too patching and boring to follow.
The proximity of communicating characters is important. If two people conversing are close enough to touch, this sends a different message than if they were on the opposite sides of a table, and again if they were on the opposite sides of the room! Their positions and postures might give you a bigger hint as to what is happening. If they are nose to nose and looking deep into each other eyes, with relaxed postures and caressing gestures being exchanged, you can make the assumption they are in love (or plotting murder).
This is a lot of information to convey in your narrative. You have to pick those aspects that convey the clearest picture of what is happening, as well as design your dialogue to sound like speech without actually mimicking real speech patterns. Look at the image provided, showing a very complex interaction between Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. As an exercise: how would you convey that information just by text?