Part four in my series about the writing process is about dialogue. We knew this was coming. It’s always the last thing any writer in any medium masters. It shouldn’t be – we use conversation every day, so you’d think it would be the easiest thing to replicate in writing. But it just isn’t. Phillip K. Dick never mastered it. Before Hemingway, writers didn’t even try. Every spoken word in books, theatre and films was written in excessive flower and as much used to tell the story to the reader as the text or imagery. We all know people don’t go around speaking like Shakespeare’s characters, but we don’t go on quite like Dickens’ or Melville’s either. In their respective times, dialogue was written in the style. Polite. Eloquent. Strangely congruent with whatever style of writing the narrator had.
Nowadays we seek realism.
And it’s where every writer falls down at some stage or another and for some, their entire careers. This is because we have an instinct to tell a story. We want to convey information to the reader. While the idea – as we all know – is to show them a series of events that tells our story, dialogue has the foil of being the spoken word. It is a direct channel between our characters and the readers. The trap we fall into is filling that channel with information.
Take for example, Robert Heinlein. Dick’s dialogue was problematic but we love him anyway. Heinlein was an out and out fascist, so I don’t mind kicking him around a bit – namely Starship Troopers. There are extraordinarily long scenes in that book, wherein the students and later the recruits, talk with their teachers or superior officers on philosophical points from the perspective of the universe Heinlein has created. Classroom scenes are a catch-all way of unloading the exposition. The student is being taught about this world and for having witnessed the lesson, so is the reader. But a common mishap occurs in Heinlein’s classroom – the student and the teacher end up speaking in exactly the same voice. Heinlein has dropped the dramatic story about a human-arachnid war (if there actually was one) and taken up his soapbox in order to fill our heads with his fascist philosophies. The problem is, nobody – not even in a philosophy classroom – talks the way Heinlein or any other writer writes.
Another killer can be found commonly on television – you might notice the Marvel films sort-of parodying this – dialogue like this:
Cop I: Do you remember the Walker murder?
Cop II: The one found near the greengrocers on sixth street in 1972? Yeah…
So… great. The audience knows that the Walker murder is the one that happened near a greengrocer in 1972. The problem there is both cops already knew it. Cop II, when asked about it, would have answered yes and nothing more. The fact that it is relevant to what they’re currently talking about only makes this dialogue worse – there was a reason Cop I asked whether Cop II remembered it – all the more reason why neither one needs to be filled in about the greengrocers or the year it happened.
Another killer is the character breakdown. The Australian film “Chopper” has a scene right at the start where we get this little nugget of insight from one character to another:
George: You’re sick, Reed. You’re insane. You bash people just to make a name for yourself.
Yay, we know all about Reed in the first few minutes of the film. We’re also not hearing a word that any flesh and blood human speak aloud to another flesh and blood human. And it completely detracts from the story. Of course, the way we could have got to know Reed and his motivations for bashing people would have been to actually see them – which he does in the same scene. Except we expected it because someone was nice enough to warn us.
Of course, great dialogue is everywhere. We read it and we hear it all the time in any number of bestsellers, films, televisions and theatre. For outstanding examples – Stephen King, Angela Carter, Larry Niven, Jeanette Winterson, David Mamet, Diablo Cody, Murray Schisgal, Zoe Kazan, and any or all of the writers who brought us Mad Men, Masters of Sex and Orange Is the New Black. We know what great dialogue sounds and looks like. We just have to train ourselves out of the impulse that compels us to use dialogue as a storytelling device it was never meant to be.
Dialogue is a costume, a set piece or the wind or rain. It tells us a lot about setting – time, location, and character all influence how we write dialogue, and, in turn, our dialogue then informs the reader about these things simply by being.
Someone who says, “Goddammit, I burned the muffins” gives you a different picture than someone who says “Oh, phooey, I burned the muffins” or “I burned the fucking muffins” or “Whoopsie, there go the muffins.”
“I think I have overdone the wittles.”
Oftentimes I see siblings in books, films or television referring to each other as sister or brother. Episode One of Game of Thrones –
Jame Lannister: As your brother, I feel it is important…
I’ve never once felt a need to introduce myself to my sister. It’s not dialogue – it’s information for the viewer and it would have been far better conveyed with something like:
Jame Lannister: Have you heard from Father?
We know from that they’re siblings and it’s something a brother would actually say to a sister.
The only way to get dialogue right is to get it wrong. I’ve dished out some criticism here today, but I know for a fact my work isn’t free of the above mistakes here and there – especially my earlier novels. It’s trial and error. Dialogue, like our command of language, is something we’re always working on as writers and it’s something we can always improve on.