Dialog is never written the way people speak. Mark Twain shook things up by inserting slang and bad grammar to add more of an accurate and realistic flavor, but even so, it wasn’t true to life. If you don’t believe me try a simple exercise. Go to a coffee shop and transcribe exactly what is said at the conversation at the next table. It will be something like:
“…I don’t know.”
“Well, you could say…ah…well. If you were to really think about it—”
“No seriously, I’m not going to—”
“Hold on, hold on! Just listen. Just yesterday I was—okay, wait—no—I mean—okay forget that...”
“No it’s not! He’s just—you know.”
“So what I was going to say is this…if you were to…ah…you know—what’s that thing?”
“You know—that thing. That we always—never mind. It’s just that—well before I get into this, okay—hold on—there was—no before that—I was at Target and…oh wait—no. That was Thursday right? So…let me think…ah…okay…god I don’t know why I can’t remember that thing. It’s driving me crazy.”
“Never mind. It doesn’t matter. I just—it’s stuck in my mind now, you know?”
“I hate that. Do it all the time.”
“I know! It will drive me crazy now. I’ll be thinking about it all day.”
“You know what will happen? You’ll think of it two hours from now and—”
“It’s so aggravating!”
“Wait—what were we talking about now?”
Have you ever wanted to shake someone and say, “Just get to the point?” or “please, organize your thoughts and get back to me?” In essence that’s what writers often do, because authors are in just as much a hurry to get on with the story as the reader is.
Watch a talk show sometime. Notice how fluid the host tends to be. They don’t repeat words, pause for long periods to think, have too many false starts, or use phrases like: you know, ah, okay, um, well. The guest does. The guest, who most often is not a polished public speaker, stumbles constantly. So do people in the wild. People in their natural habitat aren’t prepped, aren’t conscious of trying to sound intelligent or even rational. In the rush to stay current with the stream of thought flowing in the mind, crap just pours out in high gear.
Writers, like professional speakers make an effort to clean up the language. Ninety percent of the “ahhs, you knows, ums, and just plain …s” are removed. Also people tend to get to, and stay on topic—unlike in real life.
This is the first way in which dialog fails to mirror reality, and I for one would not advocate altering the trend. Realism is nice up to the point but becomes a liability where it begins to harm the work. The question is, where do you draw the line?
In an effort to tell a story, writers are prone to streamline too much. Not that I think they should introduce more “you knows” in dialog necessarily, but it’s just as bad to write just-the-facts Dragnet dialog (or for the younger generation Law & Order?):
“He asked me out on a date at ten forty-five last night.”
“Where were you?”
“We were at Arby’s.”
“What did you say?”
“I said yes.”
Okay, so don’t write dialog so accurate that it’s boring, and don’t stick to the script so tight that you lose all flavor or realism. That’s all fine and good, but I actually assume everyone knows all this already. The actual point of this post is that I think there is still something else missing—an element that makes dialog sound and feel more real and entertaining.
If you listen to people talk, or just pay attention to conversations you have, you might discover they are very different than what you read in books or hear on Law & Order. You might not even be able to figure out what’s missing. It never occurred to me either until I started thinking about comments made about my own writing.
Readers almost always comment on my character’s banter. I am praised for the clever back-and-forth witticisms—the jokes the characters throw at each other even in dire circumstances. Some have even asked how I do it. The truth is—I don’t do anything. I’m not writing banter. I’m just writing how people actually speak. I’m starting to wonder if the people I talk to are different from the norm. I hope not. I’d hate to think everyone else is locked into the dire and ultra-serious Law & Order dialog (where laughter has been outlawed), but that might explain all the commercials for anti-depressant drugs.
Some people certainly are more witty than others, but even the slow and humorless make attempts at being funny, using bad puns, drawing silly analogies from books, throwing out an appropriate movie quote, (which is always followed with, “where’s that from?”) or taking advantage of a perfect set up for a too-funny-to-pass-up insult. This is the language of dialog. This is often what makes talking to people a desirable thing.
It doesn’t matter if the conversation is casual or serious. Unfortunately I’ve spent a good deal of my youth in funeral parlors group-grieving for hours. Some of the funniest, most spontaneous jokes erupt in such an environment. This is one of the reasons why I think The Big Chill has some of the most believable dialog of any movie. Likewise, in moments of fear and dread, I and my friends, and sometimes complete strangers will make jokes. Sometimes—oftentimes, this is the best means of handling the stress.
But all too often I don’t see that depicted in movies or books. The writer is so intent on showing tension, and moving the plot that humor is ignored. This is especially true in regards to villains. Villains are evil, and the best way to display their wickedness is to eliminate the ability to be funny. Funny people are nice. And yet, one of my all-time favorite villains is the Mayor Richard Wilkins III from the third season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. More than any other villain, he felt real, and rounded, because he was pleasant and funny. Something about a happy, funny antagonist makes them far more threatening than a more two-dimensional “evil bad guy.” There is the impression that the character possess a greater intelligence and self-confidence, and that’s scary.
Still I get the sense that works that contain humor are considered “comedies” and classified as less serious, more frivolous. I find this strange since what makes a written story powerful is its reflections of real life, and so much of our lives are filled with humor. I’ve actually found “serious works” silly in their false depictions of reality for this very reason. Fantasy is often hampered by its need to be seen as serious, and one of the ways writers try to achieve this is by populating their stories with overly stern personalities living in harsh worlds. Still, I would imagine even the most poor, starving people make jokes about their situation. Laughing is sometimes the only thing a person can do that doesn’t make them cry.
So I really don’t write banter. I just write the way people speak. Then again, maybe I just know a lot of witty people.