The Dialogue Trap

Tuesday September 02, 2008 @ 08:00 AM (UTC)

“What would you say was your greatest strength coming into the program?” my advisor asked at the first thesis review this June. Luckily, this was not my thesis review, so I thought, Ample time to work this out before he asks me!

Well, I didn’t work it out, but luckily, he didn’t ask me. I still could not tell you with certainty what my greatest writing strength was coming into my MFA program, but I’d lay good odds that dialogue was my greatest weakness. I felt most comfortable writing dialogue in a whimsical vein, writing things like “But what is it, Mister Gently, that brings you along these dusty roads at the peak of midsummer?” and “Gerald, man the manipulator arms!” Things, in short, that no one is likely to say in day-to-day life.

My first serious attempts to write realistic dialogue (I do dabble in realism, too, you know) were fraught with difficulty. I devoted myself strenuously to verisimilitude, so much so that the dialogue was repetitive, ill-graced, and boring. I worked hard, in my brief forays into the world of dialogue (for many of my stories, by dint of protagonists being underwater, alone, incapable of speech, or some combination thereof, did not force me to use the tool overmuch) on finding the sweet spot between plausible speech (for each setting) and speech that was witty and engaging, that advanced the plot and characters as appropriate. Improvements were made.

But many of those forays, as stipulated, were in the context of narrative-heavy stories. Dialogue, when it came, was a welcome change of creative pace, like a ballet scene in an opera, or the bit with the dog. It wasn’t until I found myself working on projects with many speaking characters, above sea level and in rooms together, that I started to worry that dialogue would drive narrative out. The more dialogue I wrote, the more awkward the physical actions of a scene became — I felt I was writing stage direction. Shameful as it is to admit, after spending semesters writing immersive natural environments, full of touch and smell, I would look over pages of my work and realize that there was nothing but hearing (dialogue) and sight (“Daniel walked over and stood at the foot of her bed.”) at play.

This, I suppose, is one of the paradoxes of writing, or art in general. You can move from one extreme to the other from piece to piece, change your strengths and weaknesses completely without changing yourself. It shows that you can’t discard old writing advice because you’re doing well at that aspect; you are now, you might not always be. You will someday need to scrawl “add more sensory detail” in your own margin.

But the paradox can be fruitful. Stuck in a scene full of back-and-forth, seeing my characters walk down a blank street, throwing lines at each other through empty air, I put down my pen. I think of those other places, reefs and castles, beaches and burger shops, that have been easy to smell and feel, easy in their weirdness, vividness or delight for me to experience and share with the reader. I try to see a street as if it were a reef, full of bizarre creatures and unexpected colors. I try to make the world strange again, so I can dive into it anew.


Dialogue is fun for me to play with too. What’s weird is that in a way you have to work to write dialogue that you yourself would never say – you have to stay in character, for each character. I hate it when all the characters is a story talk the same exact way.

Sometimes characters are assholes, too. I mean, how does Joss Whedon live with himself after writing those things Angelus says? :P But yes, I hate it when I can’t tell who is speaking because everyone speaks the same.

Or when a book is well-written, but the editors mess up the line breaks. “Wait, why is Stephen talking like Jack? Wait, why is Stephen talking like Jack and addressing himself! DAMN YOU W.W. NORTON!”

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