Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Losing My Religion, Part 5: Misconceptions About Dialogue

Let’s talk about talk.

What I Used to Think: Good dialogue sounds like real life.
  • What I Now Realize: In order to write a story, life must be dramatized.  Dialogue should be more succinct, more proactive and filled with more personality than it would be in real life.  Even passive characters should be aggressively passive. Nevertheless, don’t think that…
What I Used to Think: Characters in a story can sound like they’re in a story.
  • What I Now Realize: Dialogue cannot sound exactly as it would be in real life, but it must mirror the structure, language, and cadence of how people actually talk, to a startling degree. In bold, fresh ways, their speech should reflect the internal logic and odd tactics that people use in real life conversations.
What I Used to Think: You can learn to write dialogue by getting an MFA in writing. 
  • What I Now Realize: MFA programs are bad dialogue echo-chambers. Instead, you have to get out in the world and listen carefully to how real people talk.  You have to listen to what they’re saying and what they’re not saying, to ways in which their feelings are universal and ways in which their jargon is unique.
What I Used to Think: Characters in the same time, place, and job will pretty much talk alike. 
  • What I Now Realize: No matter how much they have in common, characters must each have unique metaphor families that determine their slang, their points of comparison, their exclamations, etc.  These might be determined by their home region, developmental state, or the specifics of their individual job category. 
What I Used to Think: Your characters’ personalities will be totally transformed over the course of the story. 
  • What I Now Realize: In order to remain believable, your characters’ language should reveal at least one default personality trait that always tinges their dialogue, no matter how much everything changes.  (Even when he’s happy, a depressive character will say, “I’m actually happy for once.”)
What I Used to Think: Your characters should use whatever argument strategy is most useful at the time. 
  • What I Now Realize: They can try new strategies when necessary, but each character should have a default argument strategy, such as evidence-based, passive aggressive, faux naïve, etc.
What I Used to Think: Every member of an ensemble should be well-rounded and three-dimensional
  • What I Now Realize: Polarized, extreme characters are often create more dramatic and interesting dialogue than well-rounded, three-dimensional characters.  The most common way to polarize three characters is to one who is “all-heart”, another who is “all-head”, and the third who is “all-gut”.  Dialogue between three-dimensional characters reminds us of our external debates, but dialogue between polarized characters reminds us of our internal thought process, which is equally valid.
Tomorrow: Theme!

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