Monday, January 7, 2019

The Imperfect Art of Dialogue

Just like anyone else, when I put on my editor's hat, I become a very detail-oriented, nit-picking master of all mistakes grammatical. I will gleefully point out where the writer missed using the subjunctive form, or where they left out the hyphen in a compound modifier. While I do this in a constructive manner, the end result should be a clean, error-free narrative.

But then comes dialogue.

As much as we love writing narrative, dialogue is in some ways the opposite of narrative. It can be clumsy and excessive, it can wander, the words are not perfect fits and the sentences can drag on. More importantly, this makes it sound natural. It sounds flawed, like something we hear anyone else say (but not ourselves. We are perfect). The weak structure of dialogue is often what makes it sound real.

One of the reasons I think workshops are crucial for polishing our writing is because we expose the words to the open air, dragging them out from that space between our ears. In a good workshop, the author reads their work aloud, putting as much personal feeling into their reading as they feel comfortable with. While this is a nice way to get a feel for how the words flow, it also helps us understand the dialogue.

A big revelations from reading the work out loud is that the audience gets to hear just how the author believes that character should sound. It is amazing to  see timid, soft-spoken writers suddenly become performers as they read their dialogue, unknowingly incorporating different dialects and styles during their presentation. This is great; this means they truly know their characters and their story. The task before them is now making sure the words on the page describe what the writer is saying aloud.

In narrative, editors hate words like "gonna," "ain't," "wanna," and other slangy words. In dialogue, they are priceless. As a writer, we need to sort through these situations and polish the narrative (where appropriate) but make sure the dialogue sounds natural. And once we hear the author read a piece of dialogue in that character's voice, we gain an understanding of just where that character's voice differs from clean grammar.

Consider the most common of grammar simplifications - the contraction. Didn't, wouldn't, shouldn't and so forth are very natural parts of spoken words, but frowned upon in clean narrative. However, when writers are told to write clean narrative, that voice can leak over to the character and give them totally out-of-place dialogue. The sentence, "I am not going to do that" is clean and tidy. However, when an eight-year-old screams that line when his parents make him clean his room, it no longer fits. Perfect grammar ruins the voice of the average eight-year-old, who would say something more like, "I ain't gonna do it!" Poor grammar, perfect character.

That example, however, can also be used in reverse. As a reader, what would you think of an eight-year-old who protested with perfect grammar? What would that say about the character? In some cases, perfect word use can say more about the character than anything else. Think about the control and discipline of perfect dialogue. Is the character highly educated? Very meticulous about detail? Annoyingly precise about everything? (In that case, they are probably an editor) The voice says it all.

Getting feedback about verbal cues is an important part of natural dialogue, and it makes your writing sound just like the voices in your head.

2 comments:

  1. Please explain, "getting feedback about verbal cues". One example of distinctive dialogue takes place with Data's speech. An android from Star Trek: Next Generation, Data did not use contractions which demonstrated his "programming."

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    1. Here's a little example about the kind of feedback we can get from verbal cues. When we read a piece aloud, it is natural for the reader/author to say the lines the way they sound in their head rather than how they read on the sheet. This includes contractions, simplifications, and speaking in the passive voice. And when the critics hear these things out loud that sound better than the written words, they should tell the reader/author about the difference.

      Of course, if the reader is offering things like dialect and slang that is not included on the page, that needs to be addressed as well.

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