Hello and good morning. It’s Thursday again, and it’s time to resume my traditional, weekly blog posting day after a brief hiatus last week due to a rather lackluster tropical storm. I expect there will be another hiatus next Thursday, since it will be Thanksgiving here in the USA, and that’s probably a more universally observed holiday here than anything but New Year’s Day (the latter being mainly observed because many people tend to be much the worse for wear after New Year’s Eve).
I’m not going to pick up the discussion of Alzheimer’s and/or Parkinson’s disease today, largely because I’m writing this post on my phone*. Also, Thursday has traditionally been a day for blog posts about writing, especially fiction. This makes it a good opportunity to address something raised by the same reader, StephenB, in a comment after yesterday’s blog, in which he asked what my thoughts or approaches were to writing good dialogue.
It’s an interesting topic, not least because I’ve never really thought about trying to write good, let alone great, dialogue. I have, however, always (as long as I can remember, anyway) enjoyed reading both good/great dialogue and good/great narration. But the greatness of such writing was always measured by how much I enjoyed it or the story in which it took place, and was from my point of view, never in deference to what anyone else said was good or great.
I’ve always tended to notice passages of writing that I find moving or eloquent, and I read and reread them, and often involuntarily memorize them. In high school, almost every day, I would write some quote or other on the little-used blackboard of the orchestra room**. I’ve also always loved characters who used words well‒they’re usually villains for some unclear reason‒in various books and movies and comic books and whatnot. A big part of the reason Lord Foul is one of my favorite villains is because of his way with words (as well as the fact that, despite being a Sauron-style “big bad”, he actually speaks in the stories)***.
I’ve also always watched people around me and listened to them, mostly to try to discern how ordinary people talk and interact and communicate, which has often been far from intuitive for me. If someone has peculiar habits of speech or sayings, especially funny ones, I’ll tend to remember them, and sometimes these will appear in my characters’ speech.
But when I’m writing dialogue, whether in a story or a play or whatever (it’s been a long time since I’ve written a play or a screenplay, but I did write them, once upon a time), I’m not really trying to make the dialogue good. I’m not even really thinking about it as “dialogue”. To me, the characters in my stories are just people‒real people in a sense. I don’t do any formal process of, for instance, deciding someone’s background or motivations or nature, partly because, as far as I can see, no real people have such clearly defined backgrounds or motivations‒real people are messy and fuzzy‒and partly because it seems boring.
So, when my characters are speaking, they’re just talking to each other, as people talk to each other, and the subjects and words depend on the situations and the vague tendencies of the person talking. I will have people try to be funny, when the character wants to try to be funny, but I can’t always tell if they’ve succeeded (and it’s often, ironically, funnier when they haven’t). Sometimes characters get the right words out and make what they’re trying to say clear on the first attempt, and other times the other characters don’t quite get what they were saying, and they’ll have to clarify their point, sometimes with exasperation.
But real people, as far as I can see, don’t do “dialogue”. They just talk to each other, and it’s very free-form and impromptu and usually quite messy, but sometimes fun. And, as I said, the people in my stories aren’t anything but people to me, even the “bad guys”, and so they are prone to say whatever they say in any given situation, and succeed or fail at communicating depending on their luck, skill, or circumstances.
Of course, I do a lot of editing as I finalize stories, but I suspect that I edit dialogue far less than I do narration. I certainly don’t bother trying to be grammatically correct when people are speaking, unless that character is someone who likes to try to do that, because most people‒even I‒don’t speak in grammatically correct sentences. Occasionally I’ll tweak something if it’s said in an awkward way that’s not a natural kind of awkwardness, or I’ll add something if it occurs to me that this character really wants to say a bit more about a particular subject than was written originally.
And, of course, in The Chasm and the Collision, the characters sometimes deliberately choose not to swear when they definitely wanted to swear, and would have done so, if not for my decision, on my father’s recommendation, not to have any swearing in the book (since it was “kid” oriented).
So I fear I have little advice to give about writing “good dialogue”, but personally, I wouldn’t worry too much about trying to do that. I doubt Shakespeare ever tried to write good dialogue specifically; he probably just had his characters say what he thought they would say, both to have fun and to advance the plot (and often tweaked into iambic pentameter). He ended up making some truly great dialogue, but I think his goal was just to write an enjoyable, moving play that people would be willing to pay to go and see. The man had to make a living.
I’m no Shakespeare (clearly), but I basically just read what I enjoy and try to write what I enjoy, and my characters aren’t Characters, they’re just people. They don’t do dialogue, they just talk, like people do, often saying stupid things, and interrupting each other, talking way too much, too loudly, and in singularly unflattering ways. I don’t know if that counts as any kind of advice or insight; these are just my thoughts on the subject.
That’s my own “dialogue” for the day. I hope you got some fun out of it, and that you have a good day, and a good week, and have whatever conversations you have with your friends/loved ones that seem to fit. And, of course, please comment here with suggestions for subjects and topics or inquiries regarding matters about which you’d like me to write.
*I didn’t bring my laptop when I left work early yesterday, exhausted beyond belief by Monday and Tuesday nights. I wish I could say I’d gone on some kind of binge on those evenings, but alas, I can’t even usually finish a single glass of wine, and apart from caffeine, allergy medicine, and OTC analgesics, I don’t use any drugs.
**The orchestra teachers were pretty easy-going about this, presumably because I was a good student and the process was nominally educational and occasionally interesting or amusing. They did give me the “dusty cello award” in my senior year, near graduation, for my idiosyncratic habit, and that very much caught me off guard. I never really realized it was odd or funny.
***He’s the second person we “meet” from the Land, in the chapter “Invitation to a Betrayal”, and I doubt I will ever forget the final paragraph of his warning to Thomas Covenant: “One more word. A final caution. Do not forget whom to fear at the last. I have had to be content with killing and torment, but now my plans are laid, and I have begun. I shall not rest until I have eradicated hope from the Earth. Think on that, and be dismayed.”