Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

Writing Dialogue

I’m sure I’ve posted on this subject before (Technorati disagrees), but as I’ve just finished a dialogue class, it’s not a bad time to revisit it. Plus, Lance Mannion has a gem of a post today that includes the following:

And this is what separates most of us from great journalists and other real writers—having a trained ear that hears what is really being said instead of what you expect people to say or remember what other people have said in similar situations, having a trained eye that sees everything and not what memory and expectation tell it it should be seeing, and then having the kind of trained memory that remembers and retains what the ear heard and the eye saw and does not overlay these fresh memories with old ones and with old prejudices and with wishful fantasies and opinions about what should have been said and what should have been seen and what should have happened.

And having a notebook handy.

This, or a similar phenomenon, is why I learned to read something twice if I wanted to read it critically; why you should see a movie twice if you want to talk about it structurally; why, as Lance says, you have to train yourself to listen to the words being said, and not what your brain translated them into in order to help you understand them. Memory is tricky, even if you’re not Leonard, which is why you and your SO can remember saying completely different things in the same conversation.

One of the exercises we did for our dialogue class was to eavesdrop on people and listen to how they talk. This is a great way to hear exactly what’s being said rather than what your brain turns it into, because you’re removing the context from their words, so your brain has no expectations to work with. I did find that it’s much harder to eavesdrop on people than I would have thought–easier while walking around a busy street on a weekend night than in a restaurant or cafe, if you want a tip. I got some great lines, though the idea is not to use those lines specifically, but to get a feel for how people who aren’t you put their sentences together.

Right now, we mostly get that feel from movies and TV, more so (I think) than from our co-workers and friends, unless they’re really unusual. Movies and TV represent an idealized form of dialogue, the way we wish we could talk, so that’s what we tend to emulate more. Lance goes on about this at some length, and the power of the writer to shape those words and thus the way people think. How many people do you think Tarantino or Kevin Smith have influenced with their snappy dialogue? Or, say, Tolkien (via Peter Jackson)?

The more you sound the way people want to sound, the more they will gravitate to your writing. So always keep your notebook handy, and when people are talking, listen.

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2 responses to “Writing Dialogue

  1. NedSanyour June 11, 2007 at 8:15 pm

    While Dickens can be long-winded, etc., I recall the words he has people say with fondness. For a time, I wanted him to write my last words. He really excelled at that, even making quotes (see: Nicholas Nickleby) seem original.I am resisting looking up some Dickens to see if I was right, but back in college-days, his dialogue was compelling while I was in that Dickens seminar.

  2. Tim Susman June 15, 2007 at 12:23 am

    I haven’t read enough Dickens to remember, but I know he’s done some of the all-time great lines. “It is a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done.””Please, sir, I want some more.””If the law says that, then the law is an ass.”Granted, those last two are from a musical adaptation of his work, but that counts. As L. Frank Baum once wrote, “Ease on down the road.”

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