How to Talk Like a Human Being… and When You Shouldn’t: Part I

Pirates of the Caribbean

‘He lashed out at his friend and said, “Don’t you think I know that?”

Now, on the surface, this sounds fine. I’ve heard this line many times. There’s conflict, a hidden — or non-so-hidden — wound, and it certainly hints at the mountain our hero will have to climb to become a better person — there’s someone or something that is a painful problem in his life.

So far, so good. Or is it? (hint: it is not).

My first problem with this line is that I don’t hear people say that. Maybe you do. I’m sure someone, somewhere has said it. But I can’t honestly remember anyone in my life phrasing their issues that way. Now, I don’t listen to that many problems but…

So, the realism, the connection to humanity is in question here. And yes, we might as well get it clear now: I believe every line should be amazing and beautiful and have the ability to connect us to others, to the universe, and to the highest expressions of art.

We are not here to be mediocre.

V for Vendetta

My second problem is that this sounds like part of some exposition. Of course, we need exposition — telling people pertinent facts that came before the start of the story — but we don’t want it just out there — naked —  obvious, and worst of all — boring.

A variation is the line ‘As you already know…’

By boring, I partly mean that it’s not doing many jobs at once. ‘Don’t you think I know that?’ is maybe part of exposition and conflict — both between the characters (a bit) and the hero and his problem. But that’s about it. It’s not teaching me much about the main character or his world. It’s not beautiful. It’s not meaningful.

To me, exposition works best as a little bit of context and then tiny droplets of backstory when the reader is very interested in having them. Up front, honestly the reader — or viewer — doesn’t want much exposition. They want emotion, situational conflict, and startling drama.

Pulp Fiction

My last problem with that line is that it’s unoriginal and doesn’t shine a light on who this protagonist is. I feel like they’re an angry man. Or woman. Who maybe feels disempowered. And I’m not saying that every line has to be, to quote Stephen Fry, ‘The unique child of a unique mother,’ but it’s a wonderful chance — especially at the beginning of a story — to let us see more of who this character is.

What’s the solution to this line? There are as many as there are writers. I hope you find amazing ones. I’d suggest keeping in mind the three things we’ve just discussed — humanity, brevity, and connection.

Make your exposition and conflict sound like real sentences people you know would say, limit the amount of ‘telling’ you do in general, and connect us to the hero’s spirit and challenges in an original way.

Hamilton: The Musical

Example: Our hero plans to rob a bank, but — with her record — this time they’ll throw away the key if she gets caught. Her brother says ‘You can’t do this! With the three strikes law, they catch you again and you’re going away for life! She says, ‘Don’t you think I know that!”

Ho and hum. We’ve heard this story, like a hundred times. But we want to hear it again — but fresher, realer. Willa Cather said, “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.”

What if instead the brother says, ‘So you read a lot?’ 

Our hero snorts. ‘Not really.’ 

The brother, ‘But you know that Wikihow site, right? Where you can learn anything from plumbin’ repair to getting a date? You read that thing a lot?’ 

Our hero says, ‘What are you on about? You been buyin’ off Lucky again?’ 

Him, ‘Nope. Six month clean. Mama wants to hold some kinda party next week. Not happening. No, my point is, you better be reading Wikihow’s How to Rob a Bank top-to-bottom, morning-to-night, ‘cause, if memory serves, ya ain’t the best at it, and last time you got more than a flooded kitchen for your troubles. 

She says, ‘You’re crazy. This one’s easy. Different.’ A pause. ‘For one thing, George won’t be there.’ 

The brother, ‘Yeah, that ‘three strikes’ law is a bitch, isn’t it?’ 

He gives her a long look. She ignores him but her face is clouded with possibilities.

End of example. Obviously, this is rough and I don’t know these people. It’s probably long… but I do like several things about it and would sit down and watch it where I’d turn off the original, clichéd version.

Honestly, for me, I like understated conflict. In my life people don’t yell (thankfully) but that doesn’t mean there aren’t concerns, frustrations, and even drama — it just means it’s not loud. He’s concerned. He doesn’t want her to do this. He doesn’t think she can pull it off.

I also like bringing in their world. It seems like a hard one — addiction, temptation, lost friends or enemies. Even the mom — I feel like she’s trying to celebrate one child besting their demons at the same time our hero is about to risk their life and freedom on something stupid.

It also raises questions I want answered: What happened on the other bank jobs? Who was George — an enemy or an ally? She thinks it will be better without him but I’m getting the feeling he was also the brains (or at least the more experienced member) of the operation.

In conclusion, I feel more connection to these characters. They speak more humanly (though maybe the Wikihow thing’s over the top — I’d probably polish it), and I don’t need or want a lot of details at this point. If I trust the brother as a real character who wants what’s best for his sister — then I’ll trust him because he knows more than I do and I’ll believe that this is a bad idea. And soon I’ll learn more about her time in prison, George, and why she thinks this time, this robbery, will be different.

In Part: II we’ll look at using humanity in our dialogue — and when to break the rules.

Mystic River by Dennis Lehane

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