Monday, July 6, 2015

On Dialogue

Hey there, WYMOP readers!
Today’s just going to be a quickie about writing—well, a particular aspect of writing.
But not to worry, you non-writers who are reading this (and I think there are quite a few of you): this is actually aimed mostly at you, though I think some of the writers will get a kick out of this as well.
Occasionally I’ll see a writer post something about being terrible at writing dialogue, or have someone mention to me how difficult it is. I’ve also seen non-writers respond to that post, or make comments if we’re in person, and sometimes those non-writers are confused.
“Dialogue is just writing what people say, right? People are talking around us all the time, right? All you have to do is listen, and write it the way you hear it. Easy peasy. Right?”
Not quite. Writing dialogue is easy. Writing good dialogue is harder, dialogue that’s going to keep a reader’s attention, and not sound stilted. Dialogue that’s going to sound real to the reader, and not make them point at the page and say “Whoa, dude, people just don’t talk like that!”
“But it’s like I said just two paragraphs back,” says one of the confused non-writers. “You just have to listen to people talk, and write it that way!”
Have you ever just sat and listened to two people talk? I mean, not watched them talk, seeing all the gestures, body language, and facial expression that go into everyday conversation, but listened only to the words? I was working at the kitchen table yesterday morning, banging away at the keys like I am now, when my parents came into the kitchen behind me. They were in the middle of a conversation, and this is what I heard:
Dad: That show about the guy who went to prison for the rape and murder of this girl.
Mom: And he didn’t do it?
Dad: There was this new DNA evidence.
Mom: I don’t know what you’re talking about.
Dad: It stars that guy from that cult thing.
Mom: That cult thing . . .
Dad: The cult thing with that guy.
Mom: The cult thing with that guy. That guy . . .
Dad: You know, Brenda Leigh’s husband.
Mom: Brenda Leigh?
Dad: Yeah. Her husband. In real life.
Mom: Wait a minute. Kevin Bacon.
Dad: Yes!

They walked out of the room, he into the living room, she upstairs toward the bedroom. Thirty seconds later, Dad shouted up the stairs:
Now, I’m not making fun of my parents here—okay, maybe a little—but this is a snippet of what an awful lot of conversation looks like on the printed page. Riveting, huh? Without seeing the flapping hands, or the eyes squinting in confusion, it just falls rather flat—and without the shared experience between the talkers, sometimes it’s downright confusing: it wasn’t until Kevin Bacon was mentioned that I realized the Brenda Leigh my father mentioned wasn’t just someone they knew, but was actually the character in The Closer played by Kyra Sedgwick, whose husband, in real life, is Kevin Bacon.
Do you really want page after page of that to read?
I thought not.
So the next time you’re wondering what the big deal is about writing “realistic” dialogue, go find someplace with people, take a seat, and close your eyes.
Chances are, they’ll wonder what the hell you’re laughing at.

—Talk to you later!

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