Stories are the one place where stress is good. Stress pushes our characters to their limits, forces change, and makes things exciting. And certainly there are many physical attributes that we can describe to show our characters feeling under the gun. Still, strong writers know it can’t all be done in description. Too much narrative can drag down your pacing, and no one wants that in the thick of your plot’s page-turning crises.
So what does stressful speech look like? Sure, you can usually hear stress in someone’s voice, but how do we show rather than tell that on the page? The answer is regression.
Speech regresses under stress. Sentences get shorter and simpler. We repeat ourselves under stress. We say things in single words or incomplete sentences. We’re rarely thoughtful, and we often argue points we wouldn’t in calmer situations.
Here’s an example from one of my own books, The Perfect Blend. Maggie is sure her banker Will is singling her out in the small business development class he teaches, and she’s decided to call him out on it. It’s a turning point in their relationship, as the romantic tension between them has been building for a while:
“Because your coffee shop is already a huge risk,” Will says. “Pinning so much capital on one piece of equipment doesn’t make sense for you.”
I suddenly see it. “Why are you protecting me? Why am I the exception to the rule?”
“I am,” I blast back, coming up on the edge of my seat.
“You most certainly are not.”
“I am and you know I am.”
Will throws his hands up in the air. “Fine. Fine. You win. You are.”
I sit back.
“I can’t look at your case objectively,” Will blurts out. “I’m worried about you and I want to protect you. There. I said it. Are you satisfied?”
Do you see how Will’s speech starts out with the complex, businesslike tone we’ve come to expect from him and regresses for both characters into an almost childlike “You’re not/are, too” exchange? There’s a big difference in his first statement and the six words after he throws his hands up in the air.
Let’s look at another example. I love to take examples from movies because most of us know the characters and the plot. But there’s an essential trick to analyzing movie dialogue: get the screenplay. You can learn a great deal by analyzing a movie scene that captures the sort of dialogue you’re trying to achieve. Only don’t just watch the scene—don’t depend on the actors’ great delivery—go find their lines. A quick internet search often can point you to official screenplays or unofficial transcripts that will show you the words, not the acting. Then you can look at structure, length, verbiage, and elements best suited for your writing. Here are two of my favorite examples of regressive speech—I bet you know the first one, and perhaps didn’t realize why you were so charmed by the second. It’s from the classic adventure Raiders of the Lost Ark. Forum seems to be having issues with YouTube links, so I’ll place them in a reply to this post so you can watch these scenes for yourself.
Indy (peering into a treasure site): “Snakes…why’d it have to be snakes ???”
We love this because up until this point Indy hasn’t been afraid of anything—and lots has been thrown at him (all those spiders….). The yelp of fear makes him human, and we love him for it.
Marion: Well, where doesn’t it hurt?
Indy: Here. And here. And a here’s not so bad. And…”
This is the lead-up to their first kiss. Indy is exhausted, injured, and definitely not out of the woods in terms of the plot. He’s been offering clever wisecracks (“It’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage…”) for most of the movie and even earlier in the scene. But as he points out multiple body parts that earn “make it better” kisses from Marion and eventually ends with his lips, his speech is almost childlike. It shows us his guard dropping, and pulls us right into the intimacy of the scene.
In each case, the characters starts off with the speech we know from them and regresses into simpler, shorter, and perhaps even more immature speech.
Try this tactic for yourself. Write a short scene (or pull one from a current work in progress) where the dialogue makes the regressions we’ve looked at today. This is especially fun in an argument—as the scene from my book shows—but it works in other stresses like exhaustion, fear, and danger. You won’t need more than a page to get the hang of it—300 words at the most—so don’t stress out, just have fun letting your characters regress.
By Tuesday, share your passage with the group. Remember, every submission earns you a chance at a free book!