Dialogue might be the most powerful tool a writer has. It’s absolutely the easiest one to lead in any direction you want, and yet… Just by keeping track of what pieces the story’s built from and what the character’s own viewpoint is, a writer just might find a line that plays several points off each other all at once, in such a bold combination the reader’s completely hooked. Just look at these lines, from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, between Saavik and Mr. Spock after meeting Captain Kirk (okay, it was Admiral Kirk at the time):
“He’s never what I expected… He seems so human.”
“Nobody’s perfect, Saavik.”
How much work do these lines do?
(The Unified Writing Field Theory — searchings and findings on what makes stories work)
Well, let’s say you’re a viewer who knows nothing about Star Trek (a real stretch, I know) except that the two seem to be aliens because you notice their pointed ears (hmm, maybe a bigger stretch). That and you’ve just seen Kirk sweep in as the officer who’s inspecting Spock and Saavik’s ship. Even if you somehow don’t know the rest of the Trek story, it still captures a whole range of points:
- Kirk is Important, or famous, enough that Saavik has expectations about him. Enough expectations that she bothers to talk about them in the middle of an inspection, when she could have stuck to business.
- Kirk isn’t what Saavik expected (laying the foundation for him surprising any number of other people too–not a bad thing to keep in mind for Kirk).
- Saavik’s concerned about “humanness,” out of all the things she might predict or notice about a person–
- and from Spock’s reply we see she wasn’t mentioning humanness to compliment it.
- Spock isn’t so impressed with humanity either, the two aliens agree on that in theory–
- but at the same time Spock is more tolerant of it, or at least of Kirk.
Six points, all leading up to how Spock’s respect for Kirk trumps all the rest. (In fact there’s a seventh point, since most viewers actually would know Spock and Kirk are longtime friends: the fact that Saavik dares to say this about her superior’s friend reminds us that even Vulcans military officers don’t let human respect keep them quiet, at least among themselves.) If this were a new universe it would be a magnificent bit of multipurpose exposition; in a franchise like Star Trek it puts the audience on notice that this writer gets the characters and the story’s only going to make better use of them from here on. Not too shabby.
In fact, this isn’t just a dialog point. It applies to any kind of characterization, and that means it can inform the whole plot of a story: how does a character really see a situation, and what’s he going to do there besides the obvious? Turn and salute the enemy he’s just viciously wiped out? Be the only person in the room who doesn’t believe the evidence, and so change the whole course of what happens next while the reader stops to think “Wait, I guess she would be the one who can’t accept it yet…”
One key to finding those openings might be to look at the story in terms of differences within its elements. What or who doesn’t fit with who, what’s grown stronger than what, who wants one thing and who wants something else, what options or tools have just stopped working–and where does a character stand on these? (“Differences,” of course, are another way to say “conflict” or at least the fun stuff that gets a reader’s attention.)
With the Saavik/Spock exchange, the gaps it points out are between Kirk’s achievements and his very human nature, comparing that with how she (as a Vulcan) sees that as odd and unsettling, all against how Spock–although he partly agrees–still has that tolerance for it. That’s a lot of bases to touch, about history and one man’s individuality, two different cultures, and Spock in turn bridging between them.
So, how many pieces is your story built from? And how many different things can you compare to each other, by finding the right character and the right moment to show a few of those differences all at once–or just the one that the reader will never forget?