Meta messages and dialogue

This sounds fancier than it is.  And I probably wouldn’t have used the phrase “meta message” if a friend hadn’t used it the other night when we were all having a drunken discussion.  Somehow my brain took that discussion and connected it to my writing and now here we are.

So, we were talking about “good” married/committed men and how they somehow manage in the first five minutes of conversation to convey the fact that they are married/committed to any potentially eligible women they meet.  And how the way they sometimes manage to fit this fact into a conversation is laughably ridiculous.  (As in “Hey, did you see the full moon last night?  My wife was telling me there was a full moon.”  Which triggers the thought, “Gee, I’m not sure what that has to do with whether you use cash or accrual accounting, but noted.  You’re married.  Will no longer smile in your direction.”)

Anyway.  At one point my friend got off track and thought we were discussing that people literally say “I’m married” in the first five minutes.  As in, “Hi, I’m Bob.  Welcome to McDonald’s.  Nice to meet you.  I’m married, by the way.  Now, what can I get you?”  There were a few confusing moments there before he finally said, “Oh, you mean the meta message is that he’s married.  But he’s not actually saying he’s married.  Yeah, that makes sense.”

(And now that I’ve tortured you with bad beer conversation, I can finally bring it back to writing.)

The other day, I was writing a short story set maybe a hundred or two hundred years in the future and had to write some 20-something-girl-online conversation.  So, I used what would be modern-day 20-something-girl-online conversation.

I knew full well as I wrote it that there is no way that a hundred or so years in the future TSGO conversations (I’m lazy and I trust you’re smart enough to figure out my abbreviation – hint, see above for the long, hyphenated phrase)  are going to be the same as they are today.  But I wasn’t writing a story about what words I thought people would use in the future.  What I needed to convey was a certain type of person and means of communication and, since I’m writing for a modern-day audience, I used the language my audience would know from present experience to convey that.

So, in other words, I wasn’t trying to write accurate dialogue for 2152.  The dialogue I used was instead meant to be a “meta message” that portrayed a certain type of person in a way that a modern reader would understand.  And, quite frankly, in a short story I don’t think you have the time and room to train a reader on a new form of communication.

Think of it this way.  If in 1912 you had somehow been clairvoyant and able to see that OMG would be a commonly used abbreviation in 2012, would you have actually used it in a story without explanation?  If you did you’d probably have to use “Oh My God!  OMG!” or something to clue readers in to the meaning.  And would you combine that with all of the other common usages that probably existed at the same time?  Think about your poor reader in 1912 having to wade their way through each and every sentence.

I, personally (because I haven’t been published and only have my own reading experience as a basis for anything), think that getting too creative with alternative dialogue/settings/terminology can be off-putting and inaccessible to readers.  I remember reading a few books in the last few years that made special efforts to come up with very unique cuss words, phrases, etc. that fit with the setting.  And in each of the three instances that come to mind (and maybe there were others that worked so well that I don’t remember them), I was pulled out of the story a little bit each time one of those unique phrases/words was used.  And these were experienced writers, too.  It wasn’t their first rodeo.

So, I think less is more sometimes when it comes to actual, accurate dialogue.  You want to give a flavor of the setting, but not overwhelm the reader.  It’s like using cilantro in cooking.  Some people love it.  Some people hate it.  Use too much and you lose all the readers that hate it.

About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
This entry was posted in General Musings, Writing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.