On Monday I shall present for my class by memory a Socratic dialogue I have written.
I have always found writing new things interesting, whether it be puzzling over a new poetry forms, reorganizing preexistent phrases as seen in bookbinder poetry, or experimenting with different point of views and tenses in a scene.
Writing a Socratic dialogue was one such challenge.
As a novelist, I have written many exchanges of various lengths between various characters in various situations. I have, in fact, written literal thousands of conversations.
In my opinion snatches of dialogues are some of the most enjoyable things to write towards a story, because there are often many layers to them, even the type of dialogue which is nothing more than a mere polite formality to the participants. A remark on the weather, a inquiry of health, and a couple other statements of the obvious.
You see there is the type of dialogue in which people actually say what they mean, then there is the type of dialogue in which people do not.
There are the tense dialogues, the kind filled with conflict, the confrontation type. There is the simple exchange of information. Bits like “There is leftover pizza from last night in the fridge that you can warm up for lunch,” or “This is an algebraic problem that should be solved for the variable ‘x’ by factoring,” or “They have twenty night guards you can take them out if you sneak around the back wall and use your bow.”
There is flirtatious banter and cruel banter and nervous banter, the kind involved before a big game or operation by waiting parties.
There are conversations centered around get-to-know you questions, the large, prying, silly ones like “What is your greatest fear?” or “What is your least favorite subject?” or “What is the color of your toothpaste?”
There are conversations that hinge on stories, whether they be those bragging claims between kids, comparing their favorite unbelievable I-heard-from-my-friend-that-their-friend stories, those personal stories and testimonies told on dates, or those hardship tales told to friends who are willing to listen.
And there are the conversations in which involved parties disagree, agree, and disagree again, laying out opinions and statistics they heard somewhere on any given topic under the sun.
And finally, some of the most intriguing, dialogues that end with the question, instead of starting with it.
Overall, there are many types of dialogues. Many kinds I have played with as I manipulate characters through their mazes.
But this was new.
I had never written a full boiled-down, simple, back and forth exchange, absent of speaker tags and the context of body language and the descriptions of the words being barked, growled, grunted, yelled, whispered, whimpered, stuttered, pronounced, smirked, or sneered.
As I point nervously to the universal truth that plays itself out every day in millions of households, on millions of streets, in millions of school and office buildings, tone is everything and they were stripping away the safety cushions that my dialogues fit in so comfortably.
If it were that alone, it would be a simple matter of hammering out the specific words and phrases to precision, charging them with the electricity and energy that would show there was no reason for signposts.
But not just that, I had never before tried to copy the eloquent style of a Greek orator mildly, condescendingly, sarcastically, philosophizing. Specifically: leading along his poor victim, tearing down said victim’s every argument, until there is nothing left to do but arrive at the obvious conclusion from the presented problem.
Which meant I needed a clear argument, lots of big words on hand, and a big conclusion with a clear definition for some vague and mostly abstract idea like “color” or “hero” or “knowledge.”
As I do with many assignments, I spent some time mulling it over, brainstorming, and thinking up a plan to execute. After a couple days of still being unsure of what to write on, I explained to my dad the basic idea (that of a conversation between a ‘teacher’ and a ‘student’ exploring a topic and trying to define something) and then asked for ideas.
He laughed and said: “Define good art.”
Once he said it, I realized that I should have guessed what his answer would be. I don’t remember the first time he told me his definition of good art, and I couldn’t say how many times we’ve conversed over it after watching a movie as a family or reading a book. Neither the amount of times I tested have it and threw things at it to see if it would shatter.
In essence, I realized that my family has had many Socratic dialogues; that they aren’t a foreign concept in the end. They are quite simple. All you need are at least two interlocutors – that is two people ready to take part in a conversation – and a place to begin: a question.
Like: What is the worth of investing in a personal library?
Or: Do you think Bilbo is a hero?
Or: How do you think communities form?
After I had written the entire dialogue for the assignment, printed it out for my parents to proofread, it came up at dinner. I explained the concept and the topic I had decided to write on to my siblings who had not heard about it yet.
“When did you write it?” one of my sisters asked.
“It’s been in the works for the past couple years,” my dad said.
“Really I just asked the question during a conversation and secretly recorded what everyone said and wrote it down later,” I joked.
Except, as with every joke, it’s partially true.
Even though everything up to the final conclusion on page three of my dialogue is original and completely thought up by me over the course of the last couple weeks, it all felt familiar. This, I thought, is well trodden ground.
One well-known element of a dialogue is style: the way it is cushioned comfortably. Sometimes by witty side comments, as if the narrator is watching a romcom and calling out jokes. Other times it’s a more scrutinizing approach where the narrator comes across as a critic at the movies taking notes for an upcoming review and picking apart everyone’s responses. “No, no, he must be lying. Ah she is scared! I know it. And he, he’s just a jerk, pay no attention to him – at least not more than necessary. He does have a point there on that topic…”
Or maybe the prose is penned by a Charles Dickens, springing up an essay for each sentence on the effects of studying afterhours, the different ways one can cut bread, or a history lecture on the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce.
And then there’s the occasions where an author steps back and leaves out everything to make a point. Going from scrutiny, rants, opinions, second-guessings, to one simple fact and letting it hang in the air. Hang in the white space all alone.
Just one thought.
And that was what the Socratic dialogue made me think about. When is less more, and when is silence louder than words? How much of a story could you tell with just the tool of dialogue? What if an entire conversation was void of commentary? How would that go in a novel?
Open a story, copy and paste a chapter in a new document, delete everything outside of quotation marks.
How does it stand?
It’s an interesting experiment to be sure. It lives along the lines of artistic boundaries, as mused on last week, that push your assumptions, that force you to get creative, that aid you in the end.
Like when you look at a friend across the room and smile, or give them a hug, sometimes it’s not what is said, but what is left unsaid that is most powerful.
Context is everything.
Student: What is good art?
And so it started.
Teacher: Meaning what differentiates art that is bad or mediocre to art that is "good"? Student: Yes. Teacher: Excuse me for answering your question with another question, but what makes anything good? Student: I'm not sure what you mean. Teacher: Let me rephrase...
I lied earlier.
Okay not exactly, but I said that Socratic dialogues are easy.
After I had already said it was challenging. Here’s why: I found out quickly that, though I knew my father’s definition I would use as the conclusion, it was only an end goal. I had no idea how to arrive at the conclusion. I had to lead up to it somehow.
I did eventually, strangely enough, find some premises to the argument, but again, it was a puzzle.
Not only that, I earlier participating in dialogues isn’t that complicated. And yes while it isn’t in essence a complicated idea, it can be hard. Yet over the past year through a look at Socratic dialogues in my class and comparing it to my experiences, I’ve realized there are definite ways not only to kill a conversation, but that there are ways to kindle it too.
So I’ve come up with five observations about what it means to converse intentionally, kindly, and thoroughly.
5 Ways to Cultivate a Healthy Dialogue
#1. Be present
Don’t get distracted, don’t be doing something else, don’t be on your phone, don’t be reading a book. Be present mentally and be willing to take part in the conversation even if it means some work.
Simply put… care about the conversation.
Value it. Value the people. Value the people through valuing the conversation.
#2. Listen | everyone brings their own expertise to the table
Conversations in our household vary in topic. From old Greek epics (“should I read the Iliad or the Odyssey first?“) to scientific discoveries (“what would happen to earth’s orbit if the sun suddenly disappeared?”) and so on. So while I am not very knowledgeable about Greek epics, and don’t know scientific terms by name or the mathematical formula for gravity memorized, I can still ask questions. I can still listen. I can give a perspective if called for. And if we veer into the topic of literature trivia, I can aid with facts there.
Don’t assume you are an expert at the topic at hand. Instead listen to the perspective of others, give them the chance to speak up. Ask specific people if they are silent. They probably have something to say.
And on the other hand don’t assume if it’s a topic you don’t know much about, that the conversation is a waste of time.
#3. When testing definitions, being willing to offer one yourself
Another facet of being willing to take part in the conversation. Be willing to put things out for people to tear it down. It’s might be the reason no one else is speaking up. In my experience people don’t speak up because 1.) they don’t care. 2.) they think the answer is obvious and feel stupid pointing it out, or 3.) they are worried about sticking their head out there to be target practice for the others.
Even if you don’t know a definition, make one up for the sake of testing it and say things like “Let’s try this definition. Where does it fall short? How can we change it to be more accurate?”
#4. Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification or examples | relate to your experiences and the experiences of others, chart out things if called for, etc.
This is very important. Often conversations go for over an hour only to end with people realizing they agree, they were just wording it differently. It’s important to strive to understand other people’s stances, experiences, and thoughts.
Don’t be afraid to ask, “what do you mean by that?” Don’t be afraid to say, “What about this what happened to me… how would you classify that on your list?”
#5. Let it flow naturally | know the difference between forcing direction and listening
This is part of point 2, but, as my debate coaches drill into my stubborn head, listen and respond off that. Don’t assume people want to talk about this exact take on this topic, this exact issue, this drilled-in specific question. Don’t check off boxes. Let the conversation flow, new ideas will come in, new perspectives.
Don’t sound like you’ve planned the entire conversation out.
If that’s your plan then you don’t understand what a conversation is.
In conclusion! from this rambling post about my Socratic dialogue ordeal:
- Dialogues are fascinating. (Mostly because people are fascinating.)
- It is once again true that boundaries help creativity.
- Conveying emotions of a person merely through exactly what they say – the bare bones plain ole black text of their dialogue – is difficult and near impossible. (When do characters, or people, ever actually say what they mean?)
- Once you start being intentional about conversations, it makes a difference.
Why not… you know… start a conversation about it? 😉
(Okay sorry that was a pretty stupid joke but it was only natural. xD)
What do you like about writing dialogues? Have you ever read a Socratic dialogue? What are some conversation techniques you use a lot?
Until next week!
~ evelyn ~