Writing and Shit – part 21 – Hiding Dialogue


The English playwright Harold Pinter was famous for his dialogue. This is what he had to say about the reaction to his work:

We have heard many times that tired, grimy phrase: ‘Failure of communication’… and this phrase has been fixed to my work quite consistently. I believe the contrary. I think that we communicate only too well, in our silence, in what is unsaid, and that what takes place is a continual evasion, desperate rearguard attempts to keep ourselves to ourselves. Communication is too alarming. To enter into someone else’s life is too frightening. To disclose to others the poverty within us is too fearsome a possibility.

But it’s an earlier line from this essay that catches the belief underlying Hiding dialogue:

One way of looking at speech is to say that it is a constant stratagem to cover nakedness.

He said this in an essay called “Writing for the Theatre” in The Complete Works, Volume 1.

I’m sure you’ve seen already that this is a much less macho kind of dialogue. If Winning dialogue was Hollywood, Hiding is indie movies. It is more subtle, more indirect, less obviously exciting.

Exercise: Write a dialogue, under one of your three new pseudonyms, where two people are having a conversation but one of them is trying to conceal something – something they’ve done – from the other.

Explanation: These two people don’t have to be a man and a woman. They can be anything you like.

It will be more interesting if you didn’t make the thing being concealed an affair or ‘Where were you last night?’

Seven minutes.

Again, how did that feel? Did you prefer it to the Winning dialogue? Or did it seem a bit weaker? Did the dialogue tend to gain energy as it went along, or to lose it? Do you feel the reader has learned more about the two characters, through one of them attempting to hide rather than attempting to win?

As I said at the start of this bit, the different models of dialogue should intermix and overlap. A successful attempt to hide within a dialogue can count as a win. If someone is in disguise, and doesn’t want to show the extent of their true power, they may deliberately lose. These are some possible complexities – I’m sure you can think of more.

What lies beneath Hiding dialogue is the belief that all human speech is ultimately about Fear.

Exercise: Think for a moment about what the last of the three models of dialogue I’m suggesting might be? The one we’ll be looking at next week.

If Winning is based on Power, and Hiding on Fear, what might another great human motive be?

To put it another way, when you listen in on real conversations, you often hear challenge, argument and oneupmanship. You also often hear evasion, agreement and cliché. What other kinds of conversation do you often hear?

How about the kind of conversation where it’s clear that, although two people are talking, neither of them is really listening to the other?

My third model of dialogue is – for next week.

One thought on “Writing and Shit – part 21 – Hiding Dialogue

  1. Pingback: Writing and Shit – part 20 – Winning dialogue | tobylitt

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