Hello and welcome to the 100 Day Writing Challenge, Day 38.
If there were a subtitle for this section of the course – which there isn’t – it would be ‘All The Things We Cannot Say’.
Yesterday you wrote a scene in which a character with lots of questions tries to ask them without asking them. This is the kind of verbal jousting I really enjoy writing. A scene where two or more parties are partly in opposition but for various reasons neither wants to acknowledge it.
There’s a character in my novel The Ice House who early on I decided never lies. She’s sworn an oath to speak only the truth. It became, actually, really fun to write her dialogue, because she has secrets. There are lots of scenes in which she is very motivated to not disclose information to other characters, moments where she wants to disguise what she’s up to, points where she out and out wants to mislead someone. And I got to think about how someone might go about doing that without ever lying.
It means she becomes really careful with her words. The way she ended up speaking reminded me, in part, of the deep sarcasm you hear in British courtrooms. Because everything’s on the record, if a defendant, having previously denied all charges, decides upon hearing the weight of the charges against them, to suddenly change their plea to guilty, the judge doesn’t go ‘Mr Smith has been told by his barrister he’s fucked and so he’s changed his plea in the hope of getting a lighter sentence’, they’ll say what they said on one of the cases I sat on when I was called up to jury service: ‘It seems, as so often happens in these cases, that arriving in court has clarified his memories somewhat.’
No one thinks he’s suddenly remembered doing a crime that he’d previously forgotten. But the transcript of the hearing doesn’t record sarcasm. So the judge gets to communicate an opinion that everyone in the courtroom understands, without technically breaching her neutrality.
There are lots of reasons we might not say what we mean or mean what we say. Lots of sneaky ways we can use language while maintaining a façade of plausible deniability if we’re challenged, and lots of reasons we might do so. This goes all the way through the society, right up to nations making statements everyone knows have subtext or double-meaning or even coming out with stuff that the apparent intended target knows to be lies.
Today you’re going to be delving into a much smaller iteration of this – the Cold War of the home. An argument in a couple, or a partnership. Might not necessarily be a romantic relationship – there are lots of ways for people to be squashed together for a long time, and they’re not necessarily all in pairs either, but for the purposes of this exercise we’re looking at two people.
These two people are having an argument. But. Neither one of them is willing to admit that what is happening is an argument. Just like yesterday, where you had someone who had lots of questions but wasn’t allowed to ask any questions, today, both parties have grievances they want to express. Criticisms. Dissatisfaction. Maybe even insults. But they will not say these things directly.
So for example, one person might say: ‘Have you seen my blue shirt?’
‘I put it in the wash basket with the rest of the clothes you’d left lying around.’
‘I’d ironed it especially.’
‘Oh, I didn’t realise you knew how to iron.’
‘I need it for this evening.’
‘Maybe hang things up then you’ll have them when you need them.’
Now that’s quite a mean domestic argument, right? But neither person actually makes an accusation, levels an insult, admits that they’re pissed off. If you were going from the words alone, from their literal meaning, you wouldn’t find an argument there. And we humans have all sorts of ways of semi-cloaking our intent and all sorts of reasons for doing so.
So. That’s your task for today. The setting is up to you. The reason for the disagreement is your decision also. I don’t know if one person is genuinely at fault in this scenario or if they’re both as bad as each other. Tone-wise, it’s your choice whether this is a relatively innocuous spat between two people who really love each other, or something a bit less benign.
What I can tell you for sure is that you’ve got ten minutes to experiment. Have a bit of a play, see what effects you can create.
Are you ready? Oh you’re always ready, aren’t you? You always have to be first.
Sorry. I’m joking. I love you dearly, albeit at a distance and platonically. Seriously this time. Three… two… one… go.
And that is it. Well done. Good work.
I hope that was interesting and fun for you. This is an exercise that often gets people laughing and cringing in equal measure when writers read out their results in workshops, but I’m aware that conflict in relationships isn’t funny for everyone, so if this was a bit tricky for you to write about or it touched something a bit tender, I just want to say, you’re awesome. Well done for sticking with it.
We’ll place that firmly in the past, but whether you’re writing an argument or two characters nervously circling each other because they like each other, or all sorts of scenarios, indirectness is a technique you can use again and again in dialogue. It’s actually very rare that we’re able to be blunt and to the point. And you can have lots of fun with having people talk around a subject.
Right. Thank you for your incredible effort. I’ll see you again tomorrow.