Back in the 80's, the band "Survivor" came out with a song entitled, "It's the singer, not the song." That song basically detailed how it didn't matter what the lyrics were, it was the passion of the singer, the emotion in the singer's voice that meant everything. I typically disagreed because in the 80's I was young and stupid.
Over the years I've listened to a lot of things. I've listened to more than my fair share of music, TV, radio, movies. I've listened to children. I've listened to coworkers, bosses, my husband. And, the older I get, the more I realize the Survivor might just have been right. It might be the emotion, not the words, that we all should be hearing.
Recently I got to listen to singer Miley Cyrus' latest little tune. Now, I've often thought that the fallen Disney Princess is the product of questionable parenting. (When TV Dad is smarter than Real Dad, and TV Dad and Real Dad are the same guy, just with different writers, the world is a very confusing place.) Her most recent antics would make us think that's she's a young woman who has everything and is way out of control.
A quick look at the refrain of her song "We Can't Stop" does little to undermine that assumption.
It’s our party we can do what we want
It’s our party we can say what we want
It’s our party we can love who we want
We can kiss who we want
We can see who we want
So la da di da di, we like to party
Dancing with Miley
Doing whatever we want
This is our house
This is our rules
And we can’t stop
And we won’t stop
Can’t you see it’s we who own the night
Can’t you see it we who bout’ that life
And we can’t stop
And we won’t stop
We run things, Things don’t run we
We don't take nothing from nobody
Oh yeah, she's a party girl and good luck trying to put her in her place. The thing is, reading the words and hearing the words are two different experiences and after hearing the song a couple times, I'm starting to wonder if this song is less about a shout of independence and more a cry for help. She sounds less like a defiant party girl and more like a lost child begging for someone, anyone, to help her reign things in before something really awful happens because she simply cannot stop her self destructive ways.
There's so much more to communication than mere words. There's tone of voice, there's body language, there's facial expression. None of which is readily available to those of us who write words on paper...or computer screen.
As writers we have to be very aware that it's not just WHAT our characters say. Dialogue is a very good...and easy...method of characters revealing and exchanging plot points. But dialogue alone does NOT give the reader the full experience, the full escape.
I'll take a quick example from my book, "Lies in Chance." First, here's a line of dialogue from Bryan (the romantic hero), as he's sitting next to Shara (the heroine):
"Your hands are cold."
You don't get much there, right?
Now, here's how this goes in the actual book:
She covered his hand with her own fingers, and the chill of her skin startled him. "Your hands are cold." His voice was husky, straining to hold back words he suddenly ached to say. Instead, he took both her hands in his and warmed them.
Now, suddenly, you get a better image of what's going on between these two people. Now you can sense that there's clearly something going on, that he's feeling an attraction of some kind for her. It's not what he's saying to her. She knows her hands are cold. But he's telling her that he's aware she's got some sort of discomfort and, while he's not ready to tell her anything else (he's not ready to admit any of this to himself at this point in the book) he has a tremendous need to take care of her, even in this small way. It's a quiet moment, but it's big in the story because by taking her hands in his, Bryan has crossed another in a series of thresholds he needs to cross to realize his love for Shara.
Telling stories is an art, just any other creative job. Telling a story in front of an audience is easy compared to putting it down on paper. Writing a story for others to read requires a sharp focus on the other senses. We need to paint a picture, we need to turn on the volume so that our readers aren't just reading words, they are hearing and seeing what's going on with our characters.
Our readers don't want to just read the words. And we, as writers, need to make sure we're hearing more than just what our characters are saying. We need to hear how they are saying it.