gillpolack (gillpolack) wrote,

On Dialogue in Fiction

There's one thing that being unwell is always good for: intensive DVD viewing. Last time, I analysed plotlines. These last few days, I've been looking at dialogue.

Writer after writer skimps on distinctive speech. This is most notable in the West Wing. The patterns of speech are the same from one person to another (even to the use of "OK" as a set of reassurances and power plays and negotiations). When I watch episodes back to back I get the sense that there has been a kind of alien takeover resulting in clonal behaviour where people talk with versions of themselves and those versions of themselves have different life histories but have the same relationship with trivia, with politics and with relationships. When the focus is on a given character and they enjoy a pivotal moment, the speech patterns shift and we get a sense of individuality, but in those amazing long shots where people walk down corridors arguing or quipping or educating, it seldom matters who does the talking.

When I can focus, I'm reading fantasy trilogies. Some very fine writers have what I've begun to think of as the West Wing problem. Mostly action drives everything and dialogue is used to explain, to move things on a bit but not really to show how characters interact with the world. Which is funny, because we get a lot of our information of how people interact with the world in real life through speech patterns. (Another important source is non-verbal language. Interestingly, the writers who are casual about verbal communications are often just as casual about non-verbal. That's another story, though – it's how West Wing actors convince us that they're not clones, though, which shows that how we interpret words is very contextually dependent.)

Speech patterns tell us if people were brought up in similar environments, how much formal education they have, where they come from, whether they're hiding their past, whether they have language talents. Speech shows us passions and interests. It indicates types of intelligence and how good a person is at working with other people.

So many writers tell other writers "Show, don't tell." Dialogue does this. Good dialogue gives the reader deep insights into several characters at once. The reader absorbs all this wonderful information without even realising it.

It's so much more powerful to show a leader bringing a group together in a conversation than for us to be told over and over again what a great leader this amazing person is going to be, because destiny wills it. In a fantasy novel, good dialogue can be more powerful than prophecy.

Bad dialogue can take away from the sense of trust we have that this brilliant leader-to-be will be at all capable. If a member of a team of incipient heroes is negative verbally or boring whenever they open their mouth, then any heroic acts s/he accomplishes are much smaller in size.

Dialogue is one of the more interesting parts of the writer/reader compact.

When I was a kid "I Can Jump Puddles" was one of our textbooks at Primary School. We were supposed to learn about polio and about courage. I loved that book. I still do. Because I had an instant adoration of it, I read everything that Alan Marshall wrote. When someone interviewed him in the newspaper or magazine, I would read that newspaper. Sometime between reading the book for the first time and reaching Form 3, I read an interview where Marshall talked about dialogue.

Marshall explained that he always carried paper and pen and he loved catching trams. He eavesdropped shamelessly to learn how people really speak and to get the echo of that in his dialogue. He emphasised that the quality of his dialogue – which was something he was praised for – was the result of much hard work, all the time.

I suspect the problem with the particular fantasy novels I'm reading now is that the otherwise-perfectly-wonderful-writers-in-question have forgotten just how much dialogue can achieve. They have focused on their plots first. That plotting and the world of the novel are really nicely done. Action scenes are great. There are some really good themes. The hero's quest fits nicely together and the magic is definitely there. Until a character opens their mouth. They suffer from the West Wing problem.

PS Quick reassurance – none of the writers I'm reading this week are on my LJ flist. You haven't prompted this rant!!
  • Post a new comment


    default userpic

    Your IP address will be recorded 

    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.