Writing Rant–Dialogue

I’m going to begin a new semi-regular series where I discuss the pet peeves I have with some published work. To protect the innocent, all names, titles, and whatnot will be changed. As a writer dreaming of publication, but not there yet, I am in no way qualified to judge what works and what doesn’t aside from what appeals to my own personal tastes. However, since no one is actually reading this so far, it won’t really matter if I rail against some of the issues I have with various works I read. Perhaps if I become a world-famous author, a person or two may come along and read this, at which time I will seem authoritative and wise. Until then, we’ll just call it bitching.

First up–dialogue.

I pick this topic first because, without tooting my own horn, dialogue is one of my strengths as a writer. I say this not because I write a passage, then bask in the afterglow of my talent, but rather because several people who have read my work, including several who have no stake in my emotional state, have praised this particular aspect of my work. I have a lot of faults as a writer, believe me, but I don’t consider dialogue to be one of them.

Today, I am listening to an audiobook of a recent bestseller (by recent, I mean published within the past five years or so). This is the second or third time I have been through this book and I enjoyed it a great deal the first time. While not wholly original, the story is well-told and parts of it border on excellent. I always enjoy listening to the audio version of a book I like. It add a new dimension to the work, a depth of understanding that might otherwise be lacking. As a side effect, though, it allows me to study the work from a more critical perspective than I would reading it on paper for the first time. I can evaluate certain aspects of the writing, can see if various things work or if they are only a string of words that convey little meaning. Of these things, the one that is easiest to grade is the dialogue. Hearing a narrator read the passages exactly as they would be spoken in real conversation allows the reader to gauge how true the dialogue is and how well the writer performed his or her task of keeping out of the story’s way.

In the work in question, one of the characters gives a lengthy monologue about his background from childhood to manhood and how it affects who he is now. This is all fine and good, except that the monologue itself sounds, well, written. Every piece of information is served in a complete sentence, garnished with adverbs so as to sound as poetic as possible. The speech is eloquent, though casual, and demonstrates a high level of intelligence in the speaker.

As a general rule, though, we don’t speak this way. Our verbal communication is not like our written word, full of the above. Instead, we speak in clipped passages. Incomplete sentences. Fragments galore. We start and stop, hem and haw, hesitate and cogitate until we wonder if what we are saying makes any sense at all. More egregious to me, we don’t use adverbs. Listen to the speech around you. Eavesdrop on some conversation at your local restaurant and count how many descriptive adverbs you hear. I guarantee it won’t be many unless the people you are listening to are way into the cups, and even then I doubt it. We use less description in dialogue because the people we are speaking to generally have an understanding of what we are talking about without having to go into great detail. Along those same lines, how many people do you encounter on an average day who use simile or metaphor in their everyday speech. Sure, we all employ those aged cliches (e.g. I’m as busy as a one-armed paper hanger, etc.), but anyone who uses spontaneous comparative language to describe something would probably be stoned to death in the Wal-Mart parking lot.

We are not a culture of expansive speech. We are a culture of text-messaging, email, and abridged audiobooks. To write any different violates the main rule of fiction–tell the truth. That may seem like an odd statement concerning fiction, but good writing is believable only if it remains true to how the characters act, think, and speak. Anything less than the truth drives the reader elsewhere, someplace where another artificial truth, a better one, will replace his or her own. Even in a work of fantasy or science fiction, the dialogue must be something we, as readers, can believe regardless of how outlandish the tale. I think that this is especially important in works of these genres where the writer is already asking the reader to suspend some belief.

In On Writing, Stephen King discusses this same topic in some detail and I encourage anyone reading this to seek out that work and read. King goes so far as to criticize contemporary authors by name, something I will not do here. Still, I hope that is some prospective writer reads this someday (perhaps after I have become famous, chuckle, chuckle), he or she will stop and evaluate what makes good dialogue and what are just words on the page between two sets of quotation marks.

No writing on the new work last night as I was working on the synopsis for The Dead and the Dying, but I worked on it some tonight and my word count stands as thus:

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About Lee Smiley

I write things. Maybe you'll read them.
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