In recent days I’ve encountered several episodes of dialog that was written to serve some secondary purpose. The purpose of dialog – at least in my understanding and use of it – is to allow the characters in the story to have a voice and to use that voice to communicate about the circumstances in which they find themselves. Isn’t that why you and I hold conversations in our daily lives? We talk about what’s happening to us; we share bits of our lives with those around us. What we don’t do ( or at least I don’t think we should) are discuss things that others already know about, or try to manipulate information to our own purposes.
As this applies to writing, I’ve encountered several episodes recently where the writer is trying to reveal information to the audience by having the characters discuss things which they should already know about. Case in point: A husband has lost his job and money is tight. A reproduction of the dialog follows:
“You know dear, it isn’t easy for me right now. It’s difficult to pay bills when I don’t have any income.”
She looked at him sympathetically. “Yes, honey, I understand that this is a challenging time for you. We are all feeling the stress of it. But I know you’ve been looking hard for something new and you’ll find something that pays you what you’re worth.”
Anytime a writer finds him or her self using words like “As you know” or “You are aware that” or “I know you know” it should be a warning. Real people don’t talk like this. We might try to remind someone of details they’ve forgotten, like “Remember the time . . .” etc., but we don’t talk about issues of common knowledge as if the other individual has no clue what we’re talking about.
Dialog written for the purpose of revealing common knowledge details to the reader comes across as stilted and unrealistic. The following is a possible alternative to the previous dialog.
“We’re going to have to borrow some savings to pay bills this month. I’ve got another appointment for an interview, but I’m number 12 out of 30 applicants.”
“Hey, I know how much you’re worth, and if those people have any brains at all, they’ll see it, too. If it comes down to, hun, I’ll start applying for jobs. This doesn’t have to be entirely on your shoulders.”
The same ideas are present, but the second example doesn’t sound like something out of a bad sitcom. It at least reads as if two people are holding a conversation rather than two actors who are continuously giving a wink to the audience like they’re saying “Are you getting this?”
The other situation is dialog contrived to manipulate the emotion of the reader. The majority of the time that I find something like this, the dialog becomes more annoying that revealing. Typically the reader has tried to build tension or instill emotion into into the dialog – which are both fine purposes. However, the end result of these efforts results in dialog that is not realist and detracts from the story rather than adding to it. In one instance I encountered this, the main character is meeting a man for the first time after much previous flirting. The man is supposed to be mysterious and a bit scary. During one scene he asks if the main character is frightened. On one page alone he asks this not once, not twice, but three different times. Clearly, the repetition is meant to create suspense and even fear, but what it actually does is annoys and causes the reader to disengage from the story. Rather than creating a aura of mystery, the writer succeeds only in making it seem as if the character is a small child in the back seat whining repeatedly “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?”
The use of such contrived dialog is typically the result of a lack of experience on the part of the writer. Some writers take to dialog naturally. They have some sort of inner ear for how people speak. It’s almost like a singer who has perfect pitch. Others have to work and practice at it. With time and effort, dialog becomes more natural because the writer has worked on this skill. Again, it’s like a singer or musician who practices his or her instrument until the skill is there.
The best way to learn about dialog is to shut up and listen. Unfortunately, there are a lot of wanna-bes and new-bes who are unwilling to take this advice. Sorry that sounds harsh, but the truth is that listening is a skill that many writers don’t believe is important. When we listen, we are able to pick up on the finer details of conversation. We can observe the silent parts of dialog that take place along side the spoken parts. For example, if I look at one of my kids, smile and say, “Come here,” the chances are good he or she will come to see what I want. On the other hand, if I stare at that kid, grit my teeth and say, “Come here,” the chances are good he or she is heading the opposite direction.
Dialog is more than what characters say to each other; there is also an emotional component, a nonverbal aspect that helps the reader to connect more fully with the character and the story. Simply trying to force information down the readers’ throats is not the way to allow your characters to speak. And, yes, it takes practice to get this right.