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Communication Roadblocks Part 2

This week, we conclude the discussion of roadblocks to communication. Miscommunication can add hilarity, subtext, conflict, or motive for murder.

1.Body Language: If what Dick is saying doesn’t match his body language, Jane will know something is up. Smiling while sad and grinning while angry are sure signs that something is amiss. Jane may change tactics or attempt to understand why Dick is sad or mad. She can ignore the underlying body language or be distracted and not notice, creating an even bigger problem for herself. If she is a detective, she will know that Dick is lying about his alibi.

2. Distractions: If Dick is trying to talk to Jane, Jane may be in the middle of something, like trying to write a chapter before the inspiration fades. Jane might hear Dick without really listening. She may say things like “Yeah, whatever” or “Sure, go ahead.” Because Jane didn’t really attend to what she was agreeing to, there will be conflict. Distractions can be physical, mental, or emotional. If Dick is watching an important football play on TV, he will ignore Jane. Jane may get mad. She may get even. He may miss the fact that she just said she was leaving him for the cabana boy.

3. Jargon: Different cultures use different words to describe things. If Dick jets off to London, he might think Bobby is a person and that shag is a carpet. He might be embarrassed when someone orders “a spotted dick with cream.” All kinds of delightful (and tragic) mistakes can occur.

4. One-Up: Dick and Jane’s conversation can derail in a hurry if they are sparring, each determined to come out on top or get in the last word. A couple in a power struggle can lob, parry, and zing in an escalating war that can ruin a play or concert, a business dinner, or serve as a distraction while Sally breaks into the host’s safe. Things are often said in the heat of the moment that you can’t take back. Dick may need to grovel a while to get back into Jane’s good graces. Escalating one-up fights can illustrate the demise of a relationship gone wrong.

5. Mars/Venus: Dick and Jane have different conversational “currency.” Men tend to report and feel they are supposed to take action. Women tend to relate anecdotes and want validation. Conflict ensues if they don’t get what they want or need. If Jane gets tired of hearing Dick bitch about work because he never listens to her anecdotes about the children, her coworkers, or whatever the frustration of the moment is, she may become angry, depressed, or have an affair with someone who is willing to listen to her. Ironically, men aren’t really asking for advice when they rant either. They want their point of view reinforced. If a female injects logic, the conversation goes downhill fast. Female friendships are forged because women tend to listen and respond to each other in ways men don’t. Men are friends because they don’t bore each other with nonessential details. Dick can become jealous of Jane’s friends because she’d rather talk to them instead of him. If she tells her friend she wants a divorce but forgets to tell Dick, the game is on.

6. Repartee: In a good conversation, Sally and Jane take turns. It’s like watching a tennis match: serve and return. It can get intense, fast paced, and angry. Or it can be slow, witty, and fun. Sally can run on and on and never give Jane a chance to comment. Jane can be brusque and abrasive and cut Sally off every time she tries to say something. In real life people interrupt and talk over top of one other. Groups divide into separate conversations, which can be fun if Jane misses something she should have been listening to.

7. Too Much Information: How open people are about themselves and their lives varies with each culture. Americans stereotypically tell everyone everything about anything. They have no problem talking about how much money they have or spend. They think everyone is interested in the cute things their toddler said. Their closet doors are wide open. Other cultures are more reserved. Their closet doors are slightly ajar or firmly closed. Put opposite characters together and you have an uncomfortable dinner party, a tense diplomatic meeting or a very bad first date.

8. Witnessing: Everyone wants to feel “heard.” I would call that a basic human need. As a friend of mine put it, everyone needs a witness. If Dick feels unheard at work, it will create distress. He may become angry. He may become depressed. He may feel the need to switch jobs. If he comes home and Jane is too busy to listen to him rant about his day, he might seek out someone who will. If that someone is a psycho, you have a thriller. If that someone is a vampire, you have a paranormal fantasy. If that someone is a Martian, you have Sci-Fi.

In compelling dialogue, the course of conversation rarely flows smooth. Characters talk about things they shouldn’t, say things they don’t mean, talk at cross purposes, try to shout each other down, wheedle, plead, whine, bitch, mislead and lie.

A conversation can also serve to bring a character back down from a precipice of anger, frustration, depression or jealousy. A friend can calm and soothe and bank the fires. Use communication conflicts to illustrate your protagonist’s progress toward and away from his goal.

For more information on creating conflict, obstacles, and responses, pick up a copy of Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict in print or E-book version.

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