Half a Conversation

One of the fun things about conversations is that giving an audience part of one can imply the rest. I’ve already discussed some of these partial conversations before, in the form of the wordless conversation and the sound-only conversation. But there’s another kind, this one a literal half-conversation, and this is one you’ve all had experience with at some point, for both good and ill.

This is a conversation in which you can only hear or understand half of the dialogue. The most common (and often most annoying) form of this is the overheard telephone conversation, in which one participant is clearly audible but the other isn’t audible except to the first—in less technological settings, this can be replaced with magical communication, with a somewhat far away conversation in which only one of them is speaking loudly enough to be audible, with a little distance and a barrier… you get the idea.

In situations like this, writing the half-conversation is pretty simple. You write what the audible character is saying, figure out what the inaudible character is saying,

But inaudibility is only one reason why one might only understand half of a conversation; incomprehensibility can serve just as well. Sometimes you get things like one character understanding, but not speaking, the other character’s language, but the character to whom he is speaking in his own way understanding and reacting appropriately (this is why at least a few members of my family maintain that in most of the Star Wars movies, R2-D2 got all the best lines). Or they are speaking the same language, and it is technically one the observer speaks, but one has such a heavy accent that she might as well be speaking something else. These work pretty much the same way as the above, only substituting something with an uncertain degree of comprehensibility (and possibly with tone and body language described, if applicable).

But what’s to say the halves of the conversation even understand each other? I once ran one sequence in which the PCs in my game were in a place where only one of them spoke the local tongue, and one of those who didn’t was attempting to communicate (a little later, pretending to communicate) with a boy who was pretending to interpret for the other children. So the players are hearing the half-conversation on the part of their teammate, the kids are hearing a different half-conversation, and the lone PC who knew the language was hearing both half-conversations and snickering at his computer screen. (I was particularly proud of “They’re going out to beat each other up and then to wash their hands in the bloodied snow. It’s important to wash your hands with the blood of your opponents before every meal.”) In this case, you’re probably figuring out what the other side is saying, at least enough to figure out how they’re saying it, but the actual content isn’t what the comprehensible participant is reacting to, as it is in the other examples; instead, what she’s reacting to is what she thinks her conversational “partner” is saying. In fact, a situation like that of my in-the-know PC can be used the same way, with two half-conversations spliced together and the audience, but not the characters, aware of both sides.

Half-conversations can be used to get across the tone of a situation without revealing too many of the details, to hint at things that might come up later, or just as a shorthand for something getting done. Have you had occasion to use them?

4 comments

  1. Brickwall says:

    Never forget the classic use of them with villains. Pretty much any time a subordinate talks to a yet-unshown superior, this technique is used. With intentionally and sometimes unrealistically vague language. For me, this is one of those polarizing tropes. When done well, it really adds to the work, in manner of flavor, plot, and/or humor. When done poorly, it detracts from any or all of those three. There’s not much of a middle ground. Generally, I find that if I can’t construct the other side of the conversation in good English even with complete knowledge of the situation, it’s not done right.

  2. Michael says:

    Why do you say the telephone conversation version is annoying? I use it quite a bit, though never for my narrator *trying* to get information from overhearing a conversation, just in scenes where someone else is talking on the phone and the reader needs to get a rough idea of what’s being said and the exact words aren’t important, so giving just half the conversation is an ideal compromise for brevity.

  3. Ravyn says:

    Brick: Agreed. I tend to get the image of the villain delivering that mumbly stuff they used to show adults talking in the Peanuts cartoons, and then I can’t take them seriously from then on. (Though it’d be fun if someone lampshaded it. “Everything is going to plan, Excellency. We have delivered the MacGuffin to the Place of Plot Twists, and… what’s that? I can’t hear you. Could you please speak up? No, I’m not deaf, I just need you to mumble a little less–ARGH MY SPLEEN MAKE IT STOP!”

    Michael: I should have made it clearer that the annoyance was more for the other characters than for the audience (one of the things that inspired this post was spending half my morning commute that day with a loud-voiced woman a couple seats over delivering a narrative that seemed to be half-obscenities into her cell phone). The last half-conversation I had was actually the local equivalent to a telephone conversation, in a game I was playing in (after getting the GM’s permission, of course); he told me the answers to the questions, so I improvised a little half-conversation so he could focus on the Big Plot Stuff but it’d still be an interesting read.


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