Affecting Realism in Dialogue

Affecting Realism in Dialogue

People talk funny. I’m considering ending this post right here.

But that wouldn’t be fair. Writing dialogue in fiction is a tricky little monkey because it wears probably the most hats out of any of the devices in your narrative tool kit. Before we go on, take a moment to appreciate the image of a tricky monkey trying on a lot of hats. Heh. Rad.

Dialogue needs to exposit the plot without being too obvious, represent the atmosphere of the setting, as well as indicate a character’s specific values. Instinctual solutions to this triple-headed problem are often, ehm, shitty.

Kind of in the same way every novice thesbian reads every character in a British accent, the writer’s most common pratfall is raising the dialogue to give it a touch of misplaced class. “Stilted dialogue,” is probably a phrase you’ve read in a book or movie review and refers to the dialogue being stiff, overly-prosaic and “unnaturally formal.” It’s an easily justified solution– “My character’s a class act”– but it commonly bores the reader to hell and back. Worse, it’ll show your ignorance of how Victorian age gentlefolk actually talked because, let’s face it, you don’t know from personal experience, you just watched Pride and Prejudice and thought that’d it look smart on paper. It doesn’t. It’s boring and stupid. Moving on.

The other direction is one I’m more likely to head myself: utilizing dialect. There’s some pratfalls here, too. The most obvious one is looking like a bigot. Writing, say, a Chinese character in broken English would probably earn you a lot of hate. Another danger is steeping the dialogue in so much slang that the meaning is unrecognizable. There are exceptions to this, of course (Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, for example), but generally speaking you still want the reader to understand what’s being telegraphed. A third danger is similar to the stilts– which is an over reliance on the same dialect. I have this problem that I’ll end up injecting southern drawls into all of my stories, regardless of genre. I’m working on it. But I opt for this direction more often than not because dialect is a means of relaying attitude–and yes, sometimes that attitude is hoity-toity high class Bourgeois bullshit– reflective of the character saying the words.

Over explicative dialogue is also a bummer. I call them “information dumps.” It’s when a character breaks down the plot without nuance and spoon feeds the reader “the grand reveal.” Sometimes it’s unavoidable. For readability and logistical reasons, eventually a character needs to squeal. I don’t always handle this well myself but studying hardboiled detective fiction has offered a blunt solution– make the Macguffin of the story the information itself. Noir fiction achieves this by making the primary action of the novel a series of interviews rife with exposition in a way that seems natural to the needs of the primary character. There’s a suggestion there that applies to all genres– if you need to exposit some plot, enact an interrogation of some kind. Is it a perfect solution? Well, nothing’s gonna be, but as far as my money’s worth squeezing information out of a character tracks more naturally than unsolicited explanations for what’s going on.

Between the tasks of characterizing, expositing and reflecting the setting through dialogue is a golden opportunity to triple down on all three. It requires doing something rather unintuitive at first. Go off track. Instead of having a character simply stating their goal or the nature of their world (which I understand, sometimes ya gotta do), have them fixate momentarily on something non-sequitor. This loop around the immediate problem at hand provides a subtle glance at the setting while keying the reader into how a character thinks– while still participating with plot driven dialogue. Let me dummy up an example:

“Jess, we got to get goin’.”

“The flowers haven’t blossomed yet. Why haven’t the flowers blossomed yet, Jake?”

“Jess? We need to leave, now-like.”

In three short lines of dialogue we know that Jake is urgently concerned with the current setting. Maybe he’s a protecter type, maybe he’s just anxious, but he’s moving the story along. We know that Jess is perceptive, curious and introspective. We know that the flowers haven’t blossomed which makes us feel like the world that they inhabit has gone wrong. It goes from plot and setting to characterization and atmosphere and back to plot.

The reason why deviation coupled with dialect works as a means to express dialogue is that it’s how we naturally speak. We don’t necessarily write the way we talk– except for me and it’s weird to talk to me in person– but we should aim to come as close as we possibly can while still serving the purposes of dialogue. Dialect works because it grounds us to a particular lexicon and style. Deviation works because real life conversations often occur with both parties speaking around each other’s point (I hate to bring up Hills Like White Elephants again, but that’s the perfect example of this). How many times have you yourself brought up something entirely off topic in order to express your own interests? If you can find a way to instill that sentiment while preserving the alternative talking points (and excise the social obligations of “I’m sorry, this is off topic, but…”) while still sharing a conversation that explicates, characterizes, and reflects atmosphere, you might just make your piece feel a little bit more real.  And a spoonful of realism makes the plot go down that much easier.

Fuck stilts.





Capitalzing On Your Joe Job

Capitalzing On Your Joe Job

Every one knows that you’re not in it for the money. The money might come, but it’ll come later, years later, after you’ve amassed a small library of classics. Or it might come biweekly if you work in media or journalism.

For everyone else, there’s the Joe Job, the daily necessity of labor and exertion to fuel your creative career. For a lot of us who were trained academically to write, this is also a necessity to improve value of our work.

When I was taking fiction courses in college, I mostly spoke with people in my own age bracket. After college, I was unemployed for quite a while. And you know what? I didn’t get much writing done. There was very little stimuli, outside of media. I wrote one piece that I’m horrified to revisit. It’s flat. It works as a cerebral exercise and only that, as there are few things in the story that resemble real life interactions or motivations. Once I was brought into the fold of the workin’ Joe, I couldn’t stop writing. I figured I could use my daily experiences to aid my creative process. It worked. Because, hell, you have to work a job, right? That much in life is certain until Robots replace us all. So until then, you may as well utilize your 9-5 the best you can.

One aspect of trying to create a career out of fiction writing that not a lot of people consider is what kind of job you need to have to make it work. I’ve watched a few of my fellow creative minded friends walk into a demanding (sometimes satisfying) career and hang up their paint brushes. Now, this could be irrational, but I admit that I’m afraid to lose that freedom, so I stick to employment that allows my writing life to exist– staying out of offices and school rooms and maintaining flexible schedules (At least that’s how I frame it. You could also say, poor job market, Millenial work ethic, yada yada. Clam it). These jobs might not pay as well as I’d like, but there are lessons inherent in any professional capacity. Let’s take a look at some that I’ve learned:

When I was employed before college, I wasn’t looking for anything I could use. I wasn’t writing then. NEXT.

My first job out of college was as a barista. It was a seasonal job and I was terminated after three months. I didn’t get much out of it writing wise, other than a sense of schedule. I slowly became more consistent with the time I set aside to write because, well, I had to. Simple lesson, but an important one. Now that I wasn’t writing for a publication or for classes, I had to motivate myself to get things done. During my period of unemployment, however, I didn’t value my time as effectively as I did while holding a position somewhere. Once scarcity was established, I began to value my personal time exponentially– and began understanding how to use it effectively to start and complete writing projects.

The next job I got was at a home improvement warehouse. I liked it. It required a lot of physical labor, a few tasks that required quiet concentration and a lot of talking to people. And people get chatty at those stores. It helped me connect with blue collar Americans. My co-workers and customers fed my imagination and gave me grounded details of their rural lives. It was stuff that I could take back to my desk and fold into scenes, enriching the sense of realism. One of my supervisors found out that I was a writer and joked that I was going to make him a villain in one of my books. And then I did, as I could perfectly account for how he’d react in any given situation. That job also helped my dialogue immensely. More on that in a bit.

Third job? Makin’ sandwiches. Everyone should hold a job wherein they don’t give a single, solitary doo-doo about at least once in their lives. And then they should quit. I’m not sure I learned a writing lesson at this one, but I did learn how far I could push my writing schedule while phoning in a work performance. At the frenzied height of one of my novel revisions, the daily schedule looked like this:

3 PM – 9 PM: Make sandwiches, go home

9 PM -4 AM: Write

4 AM – 8 AM: Lucid dream about writing

8 AM – 10 AM: Write down the passages I wrote while asleep

10 AM – 2 PM: Nap

And repeat for nearly two weeks. Then I got sick and had to tone it down a little. Maybe I learned a lesson about my own boundaries and limits. Maybe not. NEXT.

I did tech support for Apple products at a call center. Not only did I get an education in pacifying aggravated customers, I got the opportunity to chat with every geographic region in the USA. It not only gave me a crash course in regional dialect, but also how different communication methods provide insight into how people think. I came into that job with the bias that New Yorkers were a pissed off, curmudgeonly people and that Southerners were a simple folk. I was delightfully proven wrong. New Yorkers speak fast. They live in a fast-paced world, even when they aren’t in a hurry. There’s no reason to take offense to that. They’re also probably the most generous people I spoke with– I’ve been invited to dinner no less than five times by New Yorkers and Jerseryans, every time in an aggressively friendly manner. Meanwhile I learned that while Southerners speak at a slow pace, they’re not slow witted. I held that bias longer than I’d like to admit. Then I had a call where I was walking someone step by step through a reboot process, and usually by step 3 or 4, I let the customer take it from there. He didn’t. I asked him if he knew the next steps in the process and he said that he did but was waiting until I told him to do so. It wasn’t that he, or Southerners generally, was a dum-dum, he just respected my authority on iPhones. How this relates to writing (you may have wondered 200 words ago) is the dynamic of effective dialogue. It’s my opinion that dialogue, in addition to any narrative information conveyed, should reflect an attitude. In that respect, this job was a goldmine. I figured if how a person asked for help with iMessage could sketch a small portrait, then every tiny line out of a character’s mouth should be another brush stroke of a mural.

I’m going to skip all the other jobs, the gigs, crawling back to previous employers, and other months of unemployment and go straight to my currently held position:

It’s pretty great. It’s physical, so I don’t resent sitting at a computer for hours at a time at night, provides enough critical problem solving so I don’t go completely insane, and since it requires following procedures, I have the opportunity to day dream and mentally review what I’m working on creatively, fix logical issues, revisit character relationships and figure out the next step, all while performing my daily paid duties. Or, I listen to podcasts (some about writing, some not) to keep myself up to date in the goings on in the world without that biting into time after work so that I’m prepared to dig into my projects in a creative mindset when I get home.

The point is, you shouldn’t despair at your job. There are opportunities to expand your creative life everywhere. Keep your mental note pad open and figure out a way to keep writing, even when you’re not writing.