Saturday, April 10, 2010

Dialogue

One reason I’ve never even considered writing any kind of fiction is my dialogue-writing induced asthma.  Back in high school I took my one and only creative writing class and it was torture.  It didn’t help that I’m not very good at creating narratives, but that wasn’t the real problem  With a whole lot of effort I could come up with some kind of plot.  But dialogue.  No.  And since I dislike reading fiction without much dialogue (a problem I’m having with 2666) I wouldn’t want to create fiction without dialogue.

If my psyche was looking for a good nightmare scenario it would put me in a room full of screenwriters all staring at me, waiting for me to come up with some pithy bit of dialogue.  And as I opened my mouth, out would come toads. 

Because of my own limitations, I have respect for television and movie writers even when I’m making fun of the bad dialogue they have written.  After all, at least they try. So I was interested in reading Jane Espenson’s latest blog post (yes, she’s back) in which she talks about the early days of movies and the transition from silent films to talkies.  I never thought about who “wrote” silent movies.  I guess I assumed that someone came up with the narrative but I never thought much more about it.  I certainly never thought about whether novelists would be good at writing silent movie scripts.  But Jane has:

The skills of a novelist were very appropriate for this kind of screenplay writing, which was descriptive, evocative, and internal. By "internal" I mean that it was concerned with what the character was thinking and feeling.

But when the transition to talkies came and Hollywood was looking for writers who could write good dialogue, they expanded their universe of writers.  Who did they find was good at dialogue?  Journalists.

They had an ear for naturalistic dialogue and they knew how to write concisely and tell stories with clear-eyed details, not evocative prose. The novelists tended to write longer and more stylish (or stylized) speeches and descriptions. Beautiful stuff, but not as valuable as something short and potent.

It makes sense but is not something I ever thought of before.  So Jane’s advice is:

Think like a reporter -- pare the story down, find the bones of it, and listen to your characters talk in the language of whatever street they come from -- even if you let them ramble on a bit in the first draft, eventually try to find the succinct quote.