Crafting Dialogue–or Avoiding it Altogether

Photo by Brian Lary from freeimages.com

My TV-watching habits, well documented in my earlier stint as an RMFW blog contributor, have started me thinking a lot about dialogue recently. Going to the movies last night kicked those thinky thoughts into high gear, so today I’m going to translate those thinky thoughts into writey thoughts.

Many new writers think that dialogue should mirror the way people talk in real life. Well, in a way it should, but in most ways it shouldn’t, because when people talk in real life they’re quite often repetitive, stutter, and boring. Not that what people say isn’t important, but when you’re writing a book you don’t really want lines and lines of dialogue discussing how much toilet paper you really need, where it’s cheapest, and whether the generic brands are suitable for every day use. In real life, this is an Important Conversation. In a book, not so much.

I think the ways in which dialogue should mirror real life are mostly about speakability and appropriateness to the situation. I get thrown out of a story bigtime when someone says a line of dialogue that I can’t imagine someone actually saying. Usually this is because the dialogue is too precise, too grammatically correct, or artificial sounding. If I try to say it out loud, it just sounds off. Reading dialogue aloud helps with this. If it doesn’t come trippingly off the tongue, it might need some revision. (I’m reminded of Harrison Ford’s comment about dialogue in the original Star Wars: “You can write this shit, George, but you can’t say it.”)

So, this is a good theory. My TV-watching habits have given me some examples that both break these rules and follow them, but still manage to be great examples of good dialogue.

Aaron Sorkin is often touted as a great TV writer because his style is immediately recognizable. I’ve often argued (mostly to myself) that this doesn’t make him that great a TV writer, because it’s my feeling that stylistic quirks shouldn’t pop up in TV dialogue (and probably not in written dialogue, either) unless those stylistic quirks are particular to the character. Stylistic quirks in dialogue that reflect the author tend to bother me, because it makes the reader immediately aware of the author behind the curtain.

I used to watch Sports Night back in the day when it was on. That was a great show. I wish it hadn’t gotten cancelled so soon. But especially toward the end of its run, every character sounded like Aaron Sorkin to me. Later, I started watching Studio 60, and I lasted about two episodes because the Aaron Sorkin-ness of the dialogue permeated every character and every line. That just didn’t work for me. (I haven’t watched West Wing, but based on clips I get the impression the balance might have been much better on that show.) Basically, my thought is that if every character sounds like you, the writer, then you, the writer, aren’t doing a great job of inhabiting and individualizing your characters. (I could be wrong. After all, Aaron Sorkin isn't exactly unsuccessful.)

My next example is Hannibal. If you really focus on the dialogue—the structure and word choice, length of sentences, etc.—you quickly realize that nobody ever talks like that. It’s a very stylistic approach to dialogue, but the characters don’t all speak in the same cadences. Nobody on that show talks like somebody would in real life, but they don’t all talk like Bryan Fuller, either. But the dialogue is so stylized that a lesser cast of actors would have a very hard time pulling it off. This isn’t a criticism. It’s just an observation. In fact, the writing here is so well structured and so well acted that I didn’t even tune in to the overly stylized dialogue until partway into the second season. If you can pull off that kind of charged, carefully weighted dialogue in a piece that is, at its core, genre fiction, then you’ve done something pretty damn impressive. Hats off to you, Mr. Fuller. (And Mads and Hugh and Gillian and everybody else in the cast...)

The next two examples—and they’ll be short—are examples of lack of dialogue. This is something else that’s hard to pull off in a story or a book without relying on POV to carry your narrative, but I think it’d be a great exercise to try just to see what you can tease out of yourself.

Wall-E is a fabulous example here. About the first third of the movie has no dialogue whatsoever, but during that time the film manages to do a lot of heavy lifting, including some major worldbuilding and introduction of two characters with very distinct personalities. We’re able to immediately tune in to the vibe of the world, the story, and the two main characters without either of them saying an intelligible word. Would this be hard to pull off in a book? Sure, but if you try it, I bet you’ll learn a ton about how you structure your stories and whether or not you’re using dialogue as a worldbuilding/characterization crutch.

The second example is Logan, which I saw last night, and which is still burning up my brain because holy crap what a freaking good movie go see it immediately. Without dishing any spoilers, there’s a character in that movie who doesn’t speak a word until about the last third of the film, and yet we’re able to tune in immediately and know exactly what’s up with them from the moment they appear on screen. Everything is projected through body language and interaction with the other characters. Again, hard to pull off in a book? Maybe. But try it. Body language is a difficult thing to convey in narrative, and if you try to present a character using only that tool out of your toolbox, I bet you’ll learn a lot and end up with even more weapons in your arsenal.

I’m going to end this with a quick moment of Blatant Self-Promotion… My latest book, Call Me Zhenya (which has a lot of dialogue because I like dialogue) is on sale for .99 right now at Amazon, so this would be a great time to grab it! I promise you’ll get at least a dollar’s worth of entertainment out of it.

(Thank you for your patience with this quick moment of Blatant Self-Promotion.)

Early Influences

By Katriena Knights

 

I’ve been watching a lot of retro TV lately, as I mentioned in some of my earlier posts. I’ve also been reading books I read when I was in junior high (shut up—that’s what we called it back then…) and high school. To my surprise, I’ve been enjoying most of it, and I’ve also noticed some things that made me go “Hmmmmm.”

I’ve always been a voracious reader. In fact, I can’t remember a time when I couldn’t read, since my mom taught me how when I was about 3 ½ so I would quit dictating poems to her under the door when she was trying to go to the bathroom. In kindergarten I was reading EB White, and by junior high I was devouring Andre Norton, Heinlein’s kids’ books, Isaac Asimov, et. al. And of course Tolkien, but that would make an entire blog post on its own.

I recently discovered a slew of Andre Norton books on Amazon for free and for very low prices. So I grabbed a big selection of them and started reading. I was almost afraid to, thinking I’d see all the flaws and have no fun at all. But I was pleasantly surprised. Pick them apart all you want, but her books are a fun ride.

I also started noticing things that reminded me of my own writing. She jumps right into the middle of the story and usually leaves you to figure out what backstory there is (she’s not big on backstory in many cases). Things move fast, and the characters are often thrown into the middle of situations they have no control over. Something about her characters have a feel that reminds me of some of my earlier heroes—and some of my more recent ones, too. And that backstory thing—I don’t think I’ve ever written a book where I didn’t have to go back and add layers because I just plowed forward without thinking much about the characters’ histories. From now on I’ll blame Andre Norton for that.

As far as TV, I found a hint of some of my strong, independent female characters in Laura Holt from Remington Steele. But I’ve been most surprised by shows I used to watch in the 70s and how they’ve affected my characterizations of same-sex male couples.

When I first wrote Dark Callings, my first professional venture into m/m romance (written as Elizabeth Jewell), I thought I was totally inspired by the US version of Queer as Folk, as well as a lot of slash fanfiction I’d read over the years before I wrote it. But now, going back and re-consuming my adolescent favorites, I’m seeing influences from relationships in those shows. You can tell me there’s no homoerotic subtext in shows like Starsky & Hutch, CHiPs, and Emergency (you’d be wrong, especially with S&H), but the interactions between the leads, the power shifts and the hurt/comfort subplots—I can see all those influences in current books where the intimate relationship between two very dominant males is paramount. Oddly, though, somehow I never pair them up with one blond dude and one dark-haired dude.

I’m not sure why I’ve been revisiting these stories and shows. Maybe it’s part of yet another midlife crisis. But it’s been an interesting journey to revisit the media I devoured back then and see how it’s been absorbed, rearranged, and spat back out. I’d be curious to know if anyone else has had this experience. Have you ever read a book you loved when you were younger and seen elements of your own writing in it somewhere? Has it surprised you? Are you, like me, going to blame all your thin backstory on Andre Norton from now on?

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Katriena Knights wrote her first poem with she was three years old and had to dictate it to her mother under the bathroom door (her timing has never been very good). Now she’s the author of several paranormal and contemporary romances. She grew up in a miniscule town in Illinois, and now lives in a miniscule town in Colorado with her two children and a variety of pets. For more about Katriena, visit her website and blog.