How To Write Better Dialog 2: Premises
When people come together to discuss a topic, they bring with them all kinds of assumptions and biases about the topic. If I say the words “labor union,” it instantly conjures up all of your feelings on the matter. Some of you will be predisposed to be hostile toward any discussion that does not involve dismantling them. Some of you will be equally biased in favor of them. And at no point can a constructive discussion take place unless we have some common ground or room to negotiate.
Our characters have the same kinds of predispositions and biases. If you are writing a fantasy story that involves magic and monsters, then it’s a sure bet that every single person in that world has an opinion about magicians, or a personal story. Even if they are as rare as a two-toothed narwhal, people have probably at least heard of them. If they haven’t heard of them, then they probably are disinclined to believe magicians even exist!
However, more often than not, I come across dialogue in novels and movies where a topic is introduced (about which characters of different backgrounds would likely have divergent views) yet everyone is on the same page about it. You end up with a group of people who stand around agreeing with each other, or even when they disagree, they are bickering over the details.
This happens when everyone in a discussion accepts the premise of the conversation.
Premises are the assumptions that are built into a conversation. They are based upon word choice, which is informed by biases. We are not always conscious of these built in assumptions, even when we are the ones asking the questions.
For example, if a character asks the question “Why do labor unions deserve legal protection for their collective bargaining rights?” then there are certain assumptions buried in the question:
- The belief that rescinding collective bargaining rights is a legitimate option. Without this premise, any answer given would be irrelevant.
- By raising the question at all, it implies that the person asking it believes it should be done. Otherwise, they’d have never raised the issue.
- Use of the word “deserve” implies that it is a privilege that must be earned.
How does this relate to dialogue in fiction?
I picked something politically charged and divisive on purpose. The confrontational nature of the question makes us want to respond to it. Whether we agree or disagree, it is demanding a reaction. When we write, it is easy to slip into the trap of making characters respond to provocation because we would respond to provocation.
But let’s say you wanted to show that your character is not just some author avatar spouting your personal morality, so you put them on the opposite side of the debate. You dislike unions, so you write a character that defends them.
Now, the trap is that even if the character answers the question by saying workers deserve protection, they have still accepted the premises of the question. In other words, if the character says: “Unions deserve legal protection because without it, management’s right to take legal action would be an unfair advantage because management has the financial means that individual workers do not,” then they have still unintentionally agreed that it is a valid topic for debate, and that workers must prove they deserve the additional protection.
The character’s act of disagreeing is unimportant because they have already validated the central premise, and revealed an underlying bias on the part of the author that has crept into the work. Whatever heated debate is taking place on the page is no longer drama, but sock puppet theatre.
Some other situations:
- If your characters are building a wood shed and get into a protracted debate about what color the shed is, they have already agreed to the premise that the shed ought to be built in the first place.
- If your characters are arguing about the morality of using demonic magic to stop an even more powerful demon, they have already agreed to the premise that demons are evil and the use of magic must be justified.
- If your characters are sailing a ship and they argue about whether three point sails are better in a storm than four point sails, they have already forgotten the obvious advice to bring the sails down during a storm.
Rejecting the Premise
It is a time honored tradition in public relations, advertising, and politics to attempt to establish a premise ahead of time. It’s also referred to as “framing the debate.” Less experienced rhetoriticians often fall into the trap outlined above where they react to the provocative statements of the other side without questioning the assumptions inherent in the statement or question. Over time, however, people learn to reject the premise before responding.
To use the prior example, “Why do labor unions deserve legal protection for their collective bargaining rights?” some responses might be:
- “Why are we discussing hard working citizens when it is a corrupt political structure that is causing the problem?”
- “How many jobs should a person have to work in order to support their family?”
- “No one in management is having trouble making ends meet, so why is this a problem?”
All of these responses share one thing in common: they brush aside the premises of the original question before dropping in a new set of premises of their own.
Rejecting the Premise for comedic and dramatic effect
Let’s face it. Tit-for-tat arguing can get the blood flowing but we only watch it as a spectator sport to either root for our side, or to listen to what nonsense the other side spouts. As writers, we are aiming to craft characters and scenes with greater depth than a Facebook argument.
Rejecting the premise can be the source of immense drama, and it tells us much more about a character than an argument does. Let’s re-examine the scene from the previous article, and this time we will examine the premises rather than the status transactions.
Julie pushed open the doors to the board room. The meeting of her fellow directors was already in progress.
“It’s about time you got here,” Seth said. He threw the copy of the report on the table and shoved toward Julie’s seat.
Julie picked it up to read without sitting down. She skimmed to the report’s conclusion. Seth started speaking but Julie held up a hand to silence him until she finished. “Change of plans,” she said. “We’ll be going with David’s proposal.”
“What?” Seth shouted. “David’s never even seen Denver!”
“It’s the continental U.S. How different can it be, really?” David asked.
“Plenty. Do you remember—”
“That’s enough, you two,” Julie said. “Seth, I understand your concerns, but Taiwan just isn’t feasible right now. You understand why, right?”
Seth opened his mouth to protest, but instead he nodded and took his seat.
When Seth calls out Julie for being late, he is trying to establish a dominant position. His choice of words and his defiant act of shoving the report across the table rather than handing it to her indicates he is operating from a particular set of assumptions:
- Julie’s tardiness deserves commenting on.
- He expects her to justify her tardiness.
- His time is more valuable than hers.
Julie doesn’t take the bait. In effect, she refutes Seth’s premise by not responding to a deliberate attempt to provoke her. She is saying, “Your comments on my behavior are not legitimate enough to merit justification.” That reaction (or non-reaction) creates more dramatic tension than if they had broken down into bickering.
Tit-for-tat bickering is a way to release dramatic tension, not build it! When characters argue, they are laying their cards on the table. To build tension in the scene and in the reader, you want to do the opposite: hold things in reserve until the last possible moment.
We see her put this into practice in the following sentence when she cuts off Seth before he can press matters. She has now established new boundaries for the discussion: they will be discussing what is important to her, and on her time.
Now, we have conflict. Seth wants one thing, Julie wants another. More importantly, they are doing all of this in front of an audience. The implicit conflict becomes explicit when Julie makes the statement that they will not be going with Seth’s plan, but with David’s.
Seth lays out that David has never been to Denver. Implied in his statement is the underlying assumption that: “Unless David has seen Denver, he does not have the expertise or the authority to speak about the plan.”
Now we have an example where a character unintentionally accepts the premise. David directly responds to Seth’s statement, hoping to convince Julie that Seth is wrong, and that he knows what he is talking about. But, in accepting the premise, he has already slipped into Seth’s trap: any justification he makes will be weaker than Seth’s statement.
Julie rescues him (and the scene) by cutting off the bickering before it goes too far. In effect, she rejects Seth’s premise that David must have seen Denver in order to have sufficient knowledge. Once again, we build dramatic tension because the characters do not accept one anothers’ premises. That dramatic tension is resolved with Seth conceding.
We can use the same technique for comedic effect. I won’t break it down as much here because the structure of refuting the premise is the same for comedy as it is for drama. The only difference is the tone of the scene. Any dramatic event can be played for laughs by changing the tone.
Joss Wheadon is a master of building comedic scenes upon characters holding divergent assumptions about the world. Any scene between Mal Reynolds and Jayne Cobb in Firefly would serve.
As a simple example, think back to any of the old Looney Toons cartoons where a character runs off a cliff but doesn’t fall. The dramatic tension is built on challenging the audience’s assumptions, namely the assumption that gravity works. The character holds a mistaken belief that they are immune to gravity (or a mistaken belief that there is still ground underneath them). The longer the character defies gravity, the more tension is built on the part of the audience because they are having their belief directly challenged by the fact that the character is not yet falling. To resolve the tension, the character falls, complete with the stoic “Uh oh” face. (Then, once audiences started to accept the premise that characters could defy gravity, they played with it further by having the characters sometimes scurry back to the cliff successfully only to throw some other sort of reversal at them.)
Give your characters the ability to reject the premise of discussions. It builds greater dramatic tension and reveals more about the character’s own beliefs and biases. In short, it gives them greater depth.