Monday 7 October 2013

"But nobody speaks that way"

I'm currently reading a book with pretty awful dialogue. (No, it's not the ones I have filed as "currently reading" on Goodreads - none of the 20-30 books, there, anyway.)

What keeps echoing through my head is "Nobody speaks that way."

But, actually, I'm wrong. People do speak that way. We exchange platitudes, spend half the allotted dialogue space on things like "Hi, how are you - yes, great - great seeing you, bye", with actual content almost zero. (One of the reasons why I'm at times been seen to be abrasive or standoffish - I don't do well with "noise".) And often, authors are told to "listen to people" for their dialogue.

Personally, I think almost nothing is duller than real-life smalltalk. If you don't believe me, record 10 minutes of real-life conversation with a smartphone and transcribe it. If you've done that even once, you'll be forever wary of any "write how people talk" rule and the excuse of "But people TALK THAT WAY!" dies a whimpering death. Real-life speech on the page is barely coherent and makes very little sense. Hell, few of us even manage to speak in complete sentences. It's a miracle this species of apes has ever built one civilisation, let alone several.

Now, most of you have heard all that before. But in my book, dialogue an artificial rendering of speech. The trick is to make it prettier, shinier and more authentic than the real thing. It's like that presentation plate in restaurants that looks amazing and better than the real food, but everything on it is wax. It represents the thing, but isn't the thing. That's the big artifice of writing. We're on the level of Platonic ideals - we're writing about people who aren't people, feelings that rarely exist like that in real life. We write dialogue that doesn't because we're not as witty or fast or clever. We build plots that make more sense than real life. And yet we have to build authentic stuff that hits the authentic buttons in an actual physical brain. The mind boggles.

We aren't gods, we're clockworkers.

I still know very little about dialogue. My characters just talk and they are better at it than I am, but I know a couple things that guide me in my own writing.

1) Dialogue drives plot. Twists happen. Information is revealed that has a massive impact on what's happening next. ("Luke, I am your father!") In real life, that's fairly rare--certainly much rarer than in fiction.

2) Dialogue reveals character. What we say is who we are on the page. Action is character, and speaking and what and how to speak is action. That's word choice, sentence length, education level. It reveals whether we're cautious, reckless, crazy, well-considered by nature. What we're feeling in the situation. What's important to us--it reveals our virtues and priorities.

3) Dialogue is conflict. One of my writing teachers encouraged me to think of any dialogue as a conflict between two (or more) people. The main question to be asked when looking at a piece of dialogue is "who's winning?" - sometimes, a dialogue ends at an impasse, but the thing is, characters don't just talk to talk. They want to achieve something. Knowing what that is is really important and keeps readers engaged. We don't care about the happy smalltalk of strangers on the train. We do care (positive or negatively) when they have a heated discussion or even a fight. Who's winning? Oftenenough, both win or lose, or can't resolve matters and need to escalate.

4) Dialogue is what's left unsaid. To me, that is the single most important thing about dialogue. I once had an editor who wanted me to explain everything and spell everything out on the page. Nothing could be left unsaid. It had all to be out there on the page and endlessly explained and clarified and shoved down my readers' throats wholesale.

While fiction like that exists and sells a million copies, it's entirely against everything I believe about "good" fiction. Personally, I can't read such books (I tried). Worse, I can't enjoy them. I want to engage that brain and think and work a bit when I read. I want a writer to trust my intelligence. After all, I trust her/his skill to entertain me. To me, interpretation is half the fun in reading, if not more. I prefer to keep the important stuff unsaid, and still put it in--between the lines. They aren't accidents, it's in my mind the advanced skill level to say things without saying them. My favourite editor tells me to cut those explanations, which is always a risk. People might not get it.

But that's when I resolved I can't write for everybody, and "my" readers (few as they are in the grand scheme of things) are okay with putting some work in. So, screw that over-explaining bullshit. You can pry the subtext from my cold, dead . . . keyboard.

Just yesterday I wrote a scene for Scorpion3 where Kendras, stoic, strong Kendras, actually says something out loud that's been simmering in the background since book 1. There's almost 150,000 words between the set-up and that particular reveal. It's a small reveal about how he considers one of his dead comrades, but the very fact that Kendras NEVER speaks about that kind of stuff made me almost break into tears. I got him then, I really got him and the pain.

It wouldn't have affected me nearly as much as if it had been spelled out in book 1. And I'm running the risk that nobody will spot the passage or even remember what it's built on, but I had full-body goosebumbs writing it.

Ah, the small, solitary joys of the novellist. In some ways, 80% of what I'm doing in my solo work is insider jokes I tell myself for my own entertainment. But that's 100% okay with me.

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