by Kathleen Bradean
Like Donna, I had a topic in mind this month, but after I read Garce’s entry on dialog a week ago, I was inspired to switch too.
During my morning commute, I’ve been listening to old radio programs from the late 40s and early 50s such as Suspense, The Shadow, Gunsmoke, The Falcon and Johnny Dollar. I’ve also listened to broadcasts of movie scripts such as Treasure of the Sierra Madre that were edited for radio and performed by the motion picture casts. No matter what genre it is, each of these programs are masterpieces of tight writing. Every line establishes or reinforces character and moves the plot along. With only the help of a foley artist and actors, the illusion of action is created. It’s really quite miraculous and wonderful.
On the other hand, in a novel or short story, you can’t get away with some of the crutches you can in a play, tv, or a movie.
For example, it’s considered bad writing to have an “As you know, Jim” passage where a character explains something to another character for the benefit of the reader rather than for the other character.
“As you know, Jim, you were my college roommate. After graduation, we went to work together here. We were the best of friends. Then I dated your sister and after not-fully-explained-bad-event-in-the-past-that-caused-your-sister-to-take-up-with-a-yak-herding-cult there was a big rift in our relationship but we’ve got to put that behind us right now because the fate of the entire planet hangs in the balance!”
But that sort of dialog is often in plays and movies. While I grit my teeth at it, I’m sure most people in the audience don’t realize how ridiculous it is for, say, a CSI tech to explain to another CSI tech why they’re lifting latent prints off an item found at a crime scene.
That’s not the only way prose writers are more constrained by the form they work in.
While His Girl Friday is an amazing movie, writing overlapping dialog in a short story rarely works well. (I tried to write an example. It sucked. If you don’t want to take my word for how difficult it is, watch His Girl Friday or any other Howard Hawks movie then try to recreate one of the more manic scenes on paper and see how far you get.)
Dialog in prose has the disadvantage of not being spoken. (Although I strongly suggest reading all your work, not just dialog, out loud before you submit it anywhere.) Tone and meaning have to be conveyed through the reader’s imagination rather than benefiting from the skills of an actor to bring out that meaning for the audience.
Dialog is a strange form of art. The writer isn’t trying to replicate the way real people talk, Real people take too long to get to the damn point, say um a lot, and spend far too much time talking about things that aren’t the exciting plot points of their lives. So what we’re aiming for is a completely artificial construct that serves the story but is worded in such a way that the reader could imagine a real person saying it. No. They have to be able to hear it in their imagination in that character’s voice and it has to ring true or your readers are going to roll their eyes.
If you can, try to listen to a few old radio broadcasts and pay attention to what those writers were able to do with dialog, a foley artist, and maybe and organ riff or two. It’s not the same as writing prose, but it will give you new respect for the power of dialog.