Positive & Negative Language to Reveal Character 207-06

When a character speaks, regardless of the topic, they’re also revealing things about themselves, their unique perspective on the topic at hand. When a character chooses to speak (or whether they choose to speak) implies what is important to them, just as how they respond demonstrates their mood and general opinion on the topic, and their opinion of those around them.

Sentence Length and Positive/Negative Language

28 loudspeaker.png

When it comes to characters and dialogue, the first question is whether they want to talk at all. A character who wants to talk will often speak at length, while a character who is reluctant to speak will use shorter sentences. Consider the following example:

“How are you?” Samantha asked. “I haven’t seen you since the service.”
“Good,” Gail said. “Keeping busy.”
“Aww. That’s so good to hear. What have you been up to?”
“Um, little things, mostly.”

Even from this excerpt, it’s clear that Gail is far less enthusiastic about the conversation, but the fact that she still follows along with Samantha’s “story” shows a certain reluctance to assert herself. But what if Gail was more assertive?

If she didn’t want to talk at all she might use negative language; short, direct phrases specifically designed to add as little as possible to the conversation.

“How are you?”
“What have you been up to?”
“Not much.”
“Would you like a drink?”
“No thank you.”

“No thank you,” is the most definitive example of negative language, a simple refusal, but in some ways every one of Gail’s responses in this example are negative. They respond to the question without offering any additional information. Samantha has to work for every piece of information, a strategy designed to discourage her, ending the conversation sooner.

When characters are in the mood to talk, they use positive language to support and encourage the conversation.Positive language can be used in two ways: “yes and,” as well as “no, but”. “Yes and” is when a character affirms what someone else says, and takes it further. For example:

“What have you been up to?” Samantha asked.
“Catching up on house work,” Gail answered.
“There’s always so much to do.”
“Mmm. Pretty soon it’ll be time to tackle the outside.”

Notice how each remark continues engaging the same topic, in this case housework, agreeing with what’s already been said while simultaneously adding to it.

In the next example, Gail wants to talk, but not about the topic Samantha’s chosen. Instead of using negative language, Gail uses positive language to shift topics.

“What have you been up to?” Samantha asked.
“Oh, not much,” Gail said, “House work mostly. Actually I’ve been thinking about getting out more, maybe volunteering at the library.”
“Say, would you like a drink?”
“Actually I was thinking of getting some fresh air. Care to join me?”

In this example Gail still doesn’t want to talk about what she’s been up to, and she’s still not interested in a drink, but instead of offering vague or negative responses, she actively redirects the conversation.

Omitted Information, Vague Remarks, and Implications

29 Missing Pieces.jpg

Sometimes characters intentionally try to limit what they are revealing with their words. For example, a character might say, “That’s the wrong way,” which doesn’t actually reveal which way “is” the right way. The implication being that the speaker either doesn’t know or doesn’t want to reveal which way “is” the right way. Here’s another example:

“What were you doing in Phoenix?”
“I was there on business.”

In and of itself this response doesn’t actually reveal very much, but the choice to be so vague, when combined with what audiences already know about the character, can be very revealing. For example, the speaker may be a very private person, they may want to end the conversation, or their “business” may be something morally questionable.

Most cases of omitted information and vague remarks take the form of a statement, but questions are a great way to create false implications, specifically by implying that the speaker doesn’t already know the answer. Many intrigue stories feature characters who assume multiple identities, characters who “pretend not to know each other” because of what that knowledge would in turn imply.

Next Time…
Dialogue Mechanics

Leave a Reply