Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

17.31: Everyone Has an Agenda

Your Hosts: Dan Wells, Mary Robinette Kowal, Maurice Broaddus, and Howard Tayler

We’ve mentioned “area of intention” earlier in this dialog master class, but now the concept gets the spotlight. If all of your characters have their own agendas, their own areas of intention, then the dialog between them should reflect that.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Daniel Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Identify the characters’ areas of intent. Remove all lines of dialog that don’t support that intent.

Thing of the week: The Essential Guide to Comic Book Lettering, by Nate Piekos.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Characters want something. Dialogue is like a series of reveals, with each character trying to move their agenda forward. Interrogation scenes are a stark contrast, with what’s at stake, and the gamesmanship of trying to get information out of you, while you are trying to hide that information. Characters may not use the right tool to accomplish their objective! People are unreliable communicators. Sometimes one character will draw another character out. Mysteries tend to slowly unveil things in dialogue, with delays, distractions, and obfuscations galore. 

[Season 17, Episode 31]

[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, Dialogue Masterclass Episode Four, Everyone Has an Agenda.

[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.

[Maurice] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Maurice] I’m Maurice.

[Howard] And I’m Howard.

[Dan] So we are going to talk about agendas today. Characters want something. That’s why they are in your story. How… What does this… Maurice, what does this have to do with dialogue?

[Maurice] So I’ve been loving some of the analogies that we’ve been having during the course of this conversation. So, the whole idea of like a series of reveals has been just fascinating to me. So, when I think of each person having an agenda, I mean we… Each conversation means something. There’s either something I’m trying to figure out or there’s something I’m trying to hide. Now it becomes a game of us trying to move those two agendas forward. So that’s a lot of ways that I tend to view dialogue. Which is why my favorite dialogue scenes to write are actually interrogation scenes. Because that’s when it becomes a really stark contrast, what’s at stake and how are we going to go about this sort of gamesmanship of you’re trying to get information out of me, I’m trying to hide it, and yet, get information out of you, too, that you’re trying to hide. So in a nutshell, that’s, for me, is at the heart of everyone having agenda.

[Mary Robinette] This is that thing that I was talking about in episode one about the idea of area of intention, that there is an authorial area of intention, and then your character has their own area of intention. As Maurice says, everyone has a reason for doing something. Like, sometimes you’re saying a thing because you’re trying to appear smart. Sometimes you’re saying it to score points. Sometimes you’re saying it to convey information. Sometimes you’re saying it to woo someone. Sometimes it’s come out of your mouth and you’re like, “Oh, I wish I had not said that out loud.” So thinking about why… What your character’s objective was for why they said that thing. They may not use the right tool for accomplishing that objective. Which is part of what makes dialogue fun is that it is… Its own version of a try-fail cycle.

[Dan] Yeah. I do love that idea. We talk about unreliable narrators sometimes, but I think we also need to remember that people are just unreliable communicators. We are often very bad at saying what we mean, or saying it in a way that will make people angry or that will not make people angry. What I often find myself thinking… We talked last episode about big conversations with multiple people. Those are one of my favorite things to write. From an author intent point of view, often one of the reasons that I will have a character speak is as an author I need to remind you they’re in the room.


[Dan] It’s important to make sure that this character says something so that you don’t forget that they’re there. But the character needs their own motivation to speak.

[Mary Robinette] I’m here, I’m here!


[Dan] They need to say something other than just, well, the author wants to make sure you didn’t forget me. So, thinking about, well, what is their agenda? Making sure they have an agenda. Why are they in the conversation? Often, and I’ve been in these conversations before with friend groups and things like that, often I have no agenda in a conversation. Sometimes my only purpose in speaking is just to tell a joke to make people laugh. Maybe I’m bored. Maybe someone else is having a very meaningful conversation and I’m just stuck there awkwardly. Those are still motivations, even if they are not driving the story forward.

[Howard] I call some of those “look, I’m just happy to be here.” What’s fun about the “I’m just happy to be here” is often during the course of a conversation, there will be a reveal and “I’m just happy to be here” becomes “Wait. We’re doing what?” Those… I mean, I’ve described it comedically. I’m reminded of… Oh, I can’t remember the class and none of it’s important. A passenger and a driver in a car, they’re driving down the road and there is a fast food place up ahead. The passenger says, “I’m thirsty.” What the passenger means is I like the milkshakes that they serve there and I want you to read my mind and let’s go get milkshakes. But they haven’t said that because even for themselves they don’t… They haven’t unpacked their own agenda. They just “I’m thirsty.” “Yeah, we’ll get something to drink when we get home.” Then they’re upset. Well, how come you didn’t pull over? Well, because we didn’t complete the conversation. Because the character had an intent that they didn’t fully understand and which they didn’t communicate.

[Mary Robinette] I’m going to push back on that slightly as an interpretation, and just say that this is an example of, and we’ll talk about this later, about where conflict can come from when two people have different understandings of the conversation. There’s an idea of high context culture and low context culture. High context culture is full of this kind of indirect communication. So instead of saying, “Will you pass me the salt?” you say, “Is there any salt?” The code is this means I don’t need you to say, “Yes there is salt.” What I need you to do is pass me the salt. So sometimes someone is saying something like that because what they’re act… The encoded stuff is basically around I would like to stop for a milkshake, but I don’t want to put you out if you don’t also want to stop for a milkshake.

[Maurice] Yeah.

[Mary Robinette] So this is… This gets back into the thing we’ve already talked about, knowing their agenda and knowing the character.

[Dan] I have an agenda right now. Which is that we need to pause for our book of the week.

[Howard] Oh. I’ve got the book of the week. The book of the week is kind of a technical manual. It’s by Nate Piekos. It’s called The Essential Guide to Comic Book Lettering. Why on earth would I hand you what is a graphic designer’s technical manual if you’re a writer? Let me read a little blurb off the back, because they said it better than I can. “Well-crafted comic book lettering is the visual soundtrack that guides a reader’s eye along the page with the mode of dialogue, intuitively placed balloons, and dynamic sound effects. But these elements are just the beginning. In this book, you’ll also learn the unique grammatical traditions of mainstream comics.” I’m going to stop there for just a moment. If you want to write comics and you don’t know the syntax of comic book dialogue, your letterer is going to choke. Your artist is going to choke. The whole project grinds to a halt because the writer is a novelist and not a comic book writer. The book is so loaded with information. Now, as a comic book guy, I’m probably getting more out of it than non-graphic designer folks will, but if you’re using, for instance, Photoshop and Illustrator to build your own book covers, there are going to be elements in here that you’re going to love to have. So, it is the Essential Guide to Comic Book Lettering by Nate Piekos.

[Dan] Wonderful. Okay. So, Maurice, you had something you wanted to say before the break.

[Maurice] Oh, yeah. It’s just something… Something actually my therapist told me once. I will use anything for applying to writing. But she was saying if people were clear communicators, she would be out of a job. It’s just we rarely say what we feel when we feel it. So my application for that is just that, as I was listening to Howard talk earlier, is the whole idea of like when I… I tend to, as a person, make you work for it. You have to ask me directly. You have to… There’s a lot of intentionality when I’m in a conversation with somebody. It drives my wife absolutely insane. But I realize that’s a tick of mine. It’s just like, oh, no, I’m not just going to casually say things. Everything is with intentionality. Then, if not, I will disappear in the room and not blink twice about it. I’m happy to disappear in a crowd. Which I know sounds counterintuitive for those who’ve actually met me and interacted with me. But I will happily disappear into that crowd unless someone draws me out of it. So I think about that a lot in terms of dialogue and my character interactions. So for that person in the room who disappears or who speaks just to remind people they’re in the room, well, there are some people who are like, “No, no. I’m trying to avoid detection.” So now what does this mean in terms of how you write dialogue or your main character trying to ferret out information they need?

[Dan] One good trick that you can use for that sort of situation is exactly what Mary Robinette did in our previous episode where I had not spoken in a while, so she asked me to talk about my own writing. Which is a way to draw people out if they are not speaking and you need a good character-based reason, that character intention, for them to be speaking. Have another character force them to…

[Mary Robinette] Or have them do something that Dan was talking about, like derailing things slightly. I… It’s… It is… You can have them tell an inappropriate joke which can then introduce tension into the scene. You can have them say, “Does anyone want some tea?” And go and putter someplace, which can reveal character about them. It’s like this is someone who’s nurturing. This is someone who doesn’t feel comfortable being not busy. There’s a number of different things that you can do that can bring that character in. One of the things that… Going back to the authorial area of intention and character area of intention, that I will think about as a person, and then I will use that tool with my characters, that I will think, “What am I actually trying to accomplish here?” So, let’s use, as an example, an apology. So an apology is a part of a conversation between two people. A character wants something when they apologize. There’s a number of different things that that character can want. You can tell which one they want when you read that apology. You can tell, because you’ve read these bad apologies. You can tell when it’s not an apology, they just want you to think nice things about them. You can tell when it’s an apology, when they want to actually win the argument under the guise of pretending to apologize. You can tell it’s an apology where they want to fix the problem that they have created and let you know that they are no longer a problem. All of those are different like areas of intention that inform the ways that they are constructing that apology. It’s exposed in the language that they use. So the idea that everybody has an agenda, the reason that we want you to think about it is because it affects not just what your character says and how they say it, but also, like, the impact of it. Because if their agenda is one thing, I want people to think good things about me, and they do the apology that is not apology, the faux-pology, it’s not going to fix the thing. People are not going to think good things. They’re just going to get angrier. So that agenda item is a failure. Right? So they’ve got an agenda and what you’ve got there is then a try-fail cycle. So you… There’s a thing they want to accomplish, they try something, and it fails. Which is part of why like understanding what your character’s goal is is so important when you’re constructing dialogue.

[Dan] Maurice, I have a question. I’m very intrigued by one of the lines in the outline you gave us that says slowly unveiling a mystery. What do you mean by that? How does that refer to this agenda dialogue conversation?

[Maurice] Well, I mean if the four of us are in a murder mystery, and someone’s like, “Hey, who killed them?” And I go, “Oh, oh. My bad. I did that.”


[Maurice] That kind of cuts the mystery pretty short.


[Howard] That’s a great micro fiction, though.

[Maurice] Right.


[Maurice] My bad, I did that.


[Howard] Who killed him? My bad, it was me.


[Maurice] Right. Tada! So. I mean, again, it’s just the problem in microcosm, it’s like, all right, so, one of you being the detective, and I’m sitting there trying to hide this information. That now charges each one of our interactions. Right? So I’m going to be as indirect, I’m going to obfuscate, I’m going to allow for distraction as much as possible during any interchange that we have in order to hide the fact that my goal is I want to get away with this murder. Right? So that’s kind of what I’m thinking about when I’m thinking about that question.

[Mary Robinette] That is so often my goal.


[Dan] That is one of the lessons that I had to learn very early on with dialogue is, I would have two characters talking. One had information they didn’t want to give up. But I, as the author, knew that this scene was the scene where they gave it up. Yeah. It just ended up being clunky. I won’t tell you, I won’t tell you, I won’t tell you, okay, here it is. Making something like that feel natural is so difficult sometimes. You need to allow for distractions like you were saying, one character is trying to delay the conversation, the other character is asking probing questions, because you can’t just say, “Hey, did you kill the guy?” You have to start asking other things. For that specific conversation, there’s a really wonderful series of YouTube channels where they will actually show police interrogations. I find those to be really fascinating. In particular, there’s one, and I can’t remember the name of the channel, where they will do police interrogations for people who are… Who are claiming to be insane. They’re clearly trying to set up an insanity plea. So there’s commentary along with it, saying, well, this is what they’re trying to accomplish by this sentence or by this behavior. And here’s why it doesn’t work.


[Dan] I love that kind of stuff.

[Mary Robinette] [garbled]

[Howard] I remember the first time I played How to Host a Murder. I was the killer, and my what’s my motivation book, the first two pages were stuck together, and I didn’t know that I was the killer.


[Howard] I totally won that game because I lied so convincingly. At one point, they said, “Hey. You’re a rock climber, you brought rope with you. Obviously, you swung to the balcony and committed the murder.” I was like, “Don’t be ridiculous. Yes, I’m a rock climber. I’m not Tarzan.” Just making fun of what they were saying, even though, from the clues that were presented in the book, oh, he’s totally the killer. I totally got away with it because I didn’t know. I learned a lot from that. You want to lie convincingly, hide the facts from yourself.


[Maurice] Right, right. I was actually just thinking… I love watching police interrogations. But there was one that was recorded… It was literally following the Indianapolis police detectives. It was a reality show, they followed them around. There was this… This was like one of my all-time favorite police interrogations. But it would almost never work on the page. Because it was basically, “Did you do it?” “No, I didn’t do it.” “Did you do it?” “No. I didn’t do it.” “Man, I know your mama.” “All right, so here’s what happened.”


[Maurice] I mean, it’s like… Really, he dumped out because the detective said, “I know your mama.” It’s like… Oh. Okay.

[Dan] I have found the specific YouTube channel that I was thinking of that’s all about criminal psychology. So, Howard, I’ve given you that link. You can include it in the liner notes for when we post this episode live.

[Howard] Okay.

[Mary Robinette] Which means that we are probably at that point where we should talk about homework.

[Dan] Absolutely.

[Mary Robinette] I have your homework. I want you to identify your character’s area of intention. So go through and look at a scene with dialogue, and identify, just flag next to it, what is your character trying to accomplish when they say this? You should know what their area of intention is for the overall scene and also for each line of dialogue. When I say you should know, I want to be super clear that most of the time, this is stuff that you have internalized and you’re doing it instinctively. This is something that you should know for the purposes of this exercise and, if you’ve ever got a scene where you can’t get traction or it’s not working, this is a tool that you can pull out. Identify their area of intention for the whole scene and also for each line of dialogue. Bonus, when I say your character, I do mean every character that is engaged in that dialogue.

[Dan] This is Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.