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Conversation with a mute

Discussion in 'General Writing Discussion' started by RodneyMcKay, Jul 30, 2011.


    RodneyMcKay Vigilante Showboat

    Oct 7, 2007
    I am the best thing since sliced bread (sliced bre
    I'm writing at the moment with a character who has no recollection of anything before the beginning of the story, which includes how to talk. She also can't write, aside from vague misplaced words that will jump into her head so to speak.

    I have found that the man she is travelling with can't really converse with her very well, aside from asking yes no questions, which gets quite... I dunno, repetative. I'm just wondering if there is a way to make it read better. Like... Is there a better way of getting her to communicate.

    Any suggestions would be great :)

    Boneman Well-Known Member

    Nov 4, 2008
    Working with the Bare Bones of talent
    Try acting her yourself, and get your nearest and dearest to ask you the questions... the wealth of gestures, of facial expressions, eye movements, as well as picking up objects, can speak volumes.
    Ursa major

    Ursa major Bearly Believable Staff Member

    Aug 7, 2007
    Some semi-random thoughts, less about means of communication, more about how you tell the story. Feel free to ignore them.

    If you find a series of questions with yes or no as the answer becoming boring, most readers will do so to. You may wish to give a relatively short example of this, to let the reader see the process, before focusing on one or other of the character's thoughts of the process and the knowledge their gaining (the man by hearing her answers, the woman by analysing why the man is asking the questions he is).

    So the first thing you have to do is decide who is narrating. If your narrator is an authorial voice, you will be have to do what Boneman is suggesting, cataloguing (though, one hopes, not at length) the various ways in which the woman is expressing herself. The same is true if your narrator is the man, though you would then be able to let the reader know what he knows, which may be a lot more interesting than the raw interrogation. If the woman is the narrator, the various physical reactions (some of which may be involuntary) would be more difficult to relate without making her very aware of herself, possibly unnaturally so.

    I'm going to assume that, at the moment, the woman is the your narrator, as only she could know about the words popping into her head. (To be the narrator, her internal use of language must be far more developed than her means of expressing them.)

    So what does she know and what does she want to? Off the top of my head, she'd be asking, amongst other things:
    • Who am I?
    • Where am I?
    • How did I get here?
    • Who is this man?
    • Does he know me?
    • Can I trust him?
    • How far can I trust him?
    • Why can't I remember?
    • Have I had an accident or have I a medical condition?
    • Did someone do this to me?
    • Did he do this to me?
    Her internal dialogue is likely to be far more interesting than a series of questions, particularly if the man appears to be a stranger. As mentioned before, his questions would be useful: not only giving her an indication of her situation, but also punctuating and informing her speculations.

    slack within the depths

    Jan 29, 2011
    Sounds like the story (or parts of it) could be about the process of discovering how to communicate. Maybe he learns what some of her gestures could mean, and over time they learn how to understand each other, and forge a friendship that way.

    I'm not sure writing from her point of view would work. If she can't write or speak, can she even put words to her thoughts? If not, then the point of view will not work. And if she does understand her thoughts, then is her inability to speak/write due to a physiological condition -- trauma to the left hemisphere? That needs to be made clear.

    Dave Wherever I Am, I'm There Staff Member

    Jan 5, 2001
    Way on Down South, London Town
    Ask yourself, how would you communicate with someone who spoke a different language?

    Hex Write, monkey, write Staff Member

    Mar 3, 2011
    Yes, I agree with slack -- I wasn't sure how to think about the question because I didn't know how much she understood.

    If she's forgotten how to form spoken language that's one thing -- and presumaby she understands the way in which languages work and words are used to symbolise things (you know, the whole thing about the word 'dog' never having bitten anyone). Then she could be using gestures etc. to communicate pretty complicated ideas or drawing things in the dirt with a stick. Presumably in this case the issue is with expression of ideas rather than generating them -- sort of like someone who has had a stroke? I believe that in real life articulating things is normally the problem (although I'm basing that on 15 second conversation with my husband and I didn't explain the whole context).

    If she's forgotten language completely, though, then how is she thinking? I don't know how language and thought are connected -- but I think they might be. For example, in 1984 language is assumed to shape not only your perception of the world but your ability to think. So by changing language, the government changes people's ability to think rebellious thoughts. I know 1984 isn't a psychology/ lingustics text and no doubt theories about this have moved on a bit since the 1940s, but it's a nice illustration of the idea that language defines thought.

    If she has no recollection of anything that's one thing -- like amnesia -- but I think people with amnesia normally remember how to talk because that's not a memory as such, it's a skill repeated so often that it has become automatic -- like they remember how to walk and eat with a fork. But this is magic, so that works OK for me that she would lose language but retain the ability to do other stuff. If she knows nothing of anything before a certain point then I guess she's basically being born again and anything she thinks has to be at a very instinctive level - so there's nothing to say she shouldn't be in a forest with this man because that's the only reality she has ever known - that's what she's been born to.

    In answer to your question -- I think she's forgotten how to *produce* language, right? Because she understands the man enough to answer yes or no. So she can sign, and he can be teaching her language again. If she once had language then presumably its a case of reminding her rather than starting afresh and she should pick up the basics pretty quickly. If she can't articulate it then signing or pictures is a good way to go - though I agree that focusing on the details of the communication is not as interesting as what they say. If you'd like to know more about this then you could look at stuff on how non-speaking people/ people with complex communication needs communicate -- there's established signing language (e.g. makaton) and also pictograms which are used to help people express their thoughts.

    Sorry - that's an essay.

    (Disclaimer -- I don't really know what I'm talking about, but these are questions that occured to me when I was reading your bit above -- and someone else might know the answers...)

    RodneyMcKay Vigilante Showboat

    Oct 7, 2007
    I am the best thing since sliced bread (sliced bre

    Going from comments I think it may help people if I give a bit more information.

    I am writing from her point of view, though it is third person point of view (I've drawn a blank as to what to call that, haha)

    She remembers what words sound like, and what they mean, but she is unable to actually speak them. So she understands everything said to her.

    The way I have him talking to her at the moment, he will start trying to make conversation, then remember she can't talk, so he'll talk to himself instead, sort of like he's correcting himself. And she mostly will analyse what he is saying, and how it is being said.

    I'm thinking, as has been suggested above, that I will have him teach her either to use sign language or write (although this will be more inconvenient, so probably the former not the latter).

    In previous stories my writing style is very dialogue heavy, and I think that is why I have been struggling a little. But I always tend to sort of act things out in my head before I write them out. So definitely do so with actions as well, I just don't wanna overwhelm people with descriptions of the way she moves, cause I imagine that will even end up quite repetitive.

    I ended up ranting a little... haha. But thank you all for the help, and any other suggestions are helpful.

    chrispenycate resident pedantissimo Staff Member

    Aug 10, 2005
    About five years ago I worked on a film about a device that contained a bar code reader, internal memory for a thousand sound bites (normally half words and half phrases), loudspeaker, and microphone. Associated with a book of pictures this could enable patients incapable of articulating to communicate quite complex concepts, albeit slowly.

    Amplified with hand sgnals - not the sophisticated ones for International Sign Language but "stop, I've understood" or "what?", which evolve naturally - and body or facial clues (although most of those who have lost speech are handicapped in facial muscle control) I've watched confident chats with just occasional 'going round the houses' to add a missing concept.

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