Secret Messages

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One of my favorite things in stories is when the dialogue is multilayered. As I said in my post last Thursday, this sort of dialogue always comes with an obvious meaning, the literal definition of the words being said, but beneath that is a second meaning, or in some cases even a third. Think of a spy film where the villain and hero meet in the middle of  crowded ball. The villain implies bodily harm through a veiled threat and the hero laughs it off with a witticism that ends in a code phrase meant for fellow agents who are listening in over his earpiece.

Or what about even blunter dual-messages that crop up in many romantic stories? Here the two main characters are very obviously confessing their love for one another, but for tension’s sake are pretending to discuss something else entirely. No one is fooled, nor indeed are they meant to be.

“There you are Miss Dotty, the plumbing is all fixed. Seems a few things just got built up and needed to be let out.”

“Oh thank you. Yes, I suppose that is my way. I just hold in too many things which I ought to be expressing out…in my plumbing, that is.”

“Yes, well, we all do. Sometimes we need another sympathetic heart to come and help us open up…to flush out our sludge, that is.”

“Well I’m sure you wouldn’t ever care to know about my sludge Mister Donny.”

“On the contrary, Miss Dotty, I have never felt so alive as when scrubbing out your vile filth.”

“Oh Mister Donny!”

“Miss Dotty!”

Well that is more than enough of that. Moving on…

Obviously there can be clever wordplay in these verbal acrobatics, but I wish to focus more on the more subtle examples, ones where the dual meaning isn’t being said from one character to the other, but rather from the character to the audience. And if audience members have not been paying attention, they might very well miss out on that hidden message entirely, meaning it comes as a reward only to the observant.

An example of this would be the oft-repeated phrase “recalled to life” in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Most every reader is going to pick up on its initial meaning, that of a man condemned to an age of imprisonment finally being “exhumed” back into the real world. However that phrase is also a motto for the entire novel, and it is entirely possible to miss out on some of its incarnations. There are the long-forgotten injustices and cruelties being recalled into sharp clarity via the barbarity of the French Revolution. There is the man condemned to the guillotine and then rescued from it. There is the man who lost his soul, then found it again in an act of selflessness. And in that same man there is his literal death, and then rebirth in a legacy that will live on forever.

There’s another excellent example of dual-meaning in the film Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others). The very last line of the film is “no, this is for me,” by which a customer indicates he does not want the book he is buying to be gift-wrapped. On the surface that is pretty clear. He is keeping the book for himself and therefore doesn’t need it wrapped, the store clerk won’t give his pronouncement any second thought. The audience, however, happen to know that this book is in praise of the anonymous Stasi agent who spared the author when he was under surveillance in Eastern Germany. The audience also knows that this man purchasing the book is that same Stasi agent, and that his entire career was ruined by that decision to spare the author, a decision he made for no other reason that that he felt that the author was a good man.

Now that simple pronouncement of “no, this is for me,” is referring to the fact that he is the one to whom this book has been dedicated and thus it is literally for him. It is for him also in the sense that this is the legacy which he has earned by his sacrifice, the reward for his suffering. It is for him because he has earned it, a gift that needs no more wrapping and concealing. For such a short sentence, it is impressively loaded with meaning and a very fitting conclusion to the entire story.

Before closing, I thought I would try and tackle the question of why does this sort of multilayered communication stand out to us? Why do we judge it as something “good” when a story incorporates these elements in a thoughtful and effective way?

Well first off, I feel that this is a subset of an greater multilayering principle that improves every aspect of a story, including dialogue. After all, we all know a character is flat if they only have a single dimension with no conflicting principles, and I have mentioned in a previous post that as much as possible we should strive for scenes that progress more than just a single plotline at a time. Characters and scenes and dialogue that are multipurpose, that advance more than one idea at a time, are by definition more complex, more difficult to achieve, and therefore more impressive when done well. Something about our human nature sees beauty in complexity, and incorporating it is an excellent way to engender goodwill for your story.

The other reason why I think we gravitate to these sorts of layered dialogues is because they are tied to a pattern of social behavior we all partake in: that tendency to say things while meaning something else. After a certain age we have all learned to not say things directly, for better or worse. To put it kindly we have speak with nuance and suggestion, and to put it more unkindly we have are manipulative and passive aggressive.

We engage in this game whether we are in love and trying to tease the other person into disclosing their feelings before we do, or whether we are in hate and trying to disguise a barb that we can claim was never our intended meaning. Across the whole spectrum of emotions we have become masters of saying things and meaning things, and doing so separately from one another. It’s amusing, then, that sometimes we have a hard time incorporating this extra dimension into our writing. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in trying to force things that we forget we can do it naturally. If you’ve struggled with this sort of layered dialogue, see if you can just get out of your own way and rely on your basic intuition.

On Thursday I will post a short story in which I try to build up an example of this sort of multi-layered dialogue. Admittedly this is a daunting task to me, at this point I have a general outline of the story I want to do, but don’t actually know the details of my dialogue yet. Hopefully I’ll be able to take my own advice, stop stressing about it, and just let my natural multi-dimensional self shine through in my writing.

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