It’s been a while since I showed the Patricia C. Wrede love. But she had a great post up today and I figured I’d share it and a few others that I’ve saved up from her.
So, today’s post: Tin Ear about how to handle the situation where you don’t have a good ear for dialogue.
First, I’ve discussed this before but dialogue is NOT real speech. PCW refers to it as “that idealized, somewhat simplified imitation-of-real-speech” without “the ums and ers and digressions and cleaned up [for] half or more of the sentence fragments.”
Exactly. Dialogue in writing is what you need the characters to say, not what they would actually say.
Now, here’s the piece of brilliance from this post: PCW says that in order to study how to write dialogue she studies plays, screenplays, and movies rather than listening to real people talk. Genius.
(Maybe someone else has suggested this before, but it’s the first time I’ve run across this specific piece of advice. I’ve heard the “eavesdrop on strangers” bit more times than I can count.)
Two key points she makes:
“The thing about plays and screenplays is that the scenes are nearly all dialog. They’re also in a format that means the non-dialog parts – the speech tags and stage business – drop out of the way.”
“The other thing about plays and movies is that they are already written in that idealized, somewhat simplified imitation-of-real-speech that you want for dialog in a story.”
I’d never really thought about it before, but she’s absolutely right.
OK. So that was the first one. I have ten other posts by her in my “to be shared” folder, but I’m not going to share all ten right now. I would say, however, that if you’re not following her blog already and you like what I say here, then you probably should.
I will share a couple of those posts, though.
Here’s one I always skip over because of its title: Election year writing but it has some really good advice in it. It’s actually about one-sided writing where the author only presents their view of the issue or where one side always seems to win every battle.
As PCW says:
“At worst, ignoring ‘the other side’ (whatever side that may be) results in fiction that’s didactic, preachy, and only enjoyable by people who already agree with the writer’s position.”
“And all that applies just as much to political, intellectual, and moral arguments in fiction as it does to physical obstacles.”
Good writing needs conflict and challenge and nuance. (Note to self: Add this to your writing.)
And another good dialogue-related post: Idioms and Catchphrases
“A future society that uses only those idioms and catchphrases that are currently in use in English implies that nobody has invented a catchy new turn of phrase in the intervening time, that none of the catchphrases or idioms in use in other cultures will migrate into the English language, and that none of the current idioms will shift in meaning. This is unlikely, to say the least.”
“And a novel gives the impression of things happening very quickly. It is very likely that in real life someone would say ‘time flies’ to one person and then, a couple of days later, ‘add his two cents’ to another conversation. In a novel, those two conversations, days apart, can quite easily take place on consecutive pages. This gives the illusion that the characters are talking in clichés all the time, even when they aren’t.”
That second point is why I think you have to read your novel or story clean just like a reader would. And in as big a chunks of time as you can. Because not only does every scene have to work, all the scenes have to work as a whole.
(As a side note – there is an author whose works I love when I read them in isolation, but I don’t read this author anymore. Because by the time I’d read the fourth or fifth book by them it was just too much of the same. And this isn’t a simple author who is trying to replicate a specific successful formula. The author’s books are complex, but they’re the same type of complex every single time. I’m sure as the author was writing each book the book was successful in and of itself. But as a reader who came to this author mid-career, it was too much of the same. So think of your writing and how it all fits together from scene to chapter to novel to series to oeuvre.)
(I love spellcheck…it lets me use big words I know but can’t pronounce or spell.)
(And I think there’s some balance there between continuity and variety that’s the key to a long-term writing career, but hell if I know exactly how that works in reality.)
I think I’ll stop there. Three good posts for you to go read that generally fit together. The others I have are about plot/hooks and about being a writer, so I’ll save them for another day.