The Perfect Thing

Whenever we watch a movie or talk about a book, G gets this wistful look and complains that people in stories always know exactly what to say.  I’ve stopped pointing out that this may be due to the fact that good published dialogue is put together word by word by professional dramatists who write it and  then rewrite it under the direction of really, really mean editors until the words are, in fact, perfect.  At least, by the publisher’s standards.

Book dialogue has to establish character, further the plot, scatter hints and foreshadowing—all without weighing down the prose.  This kind of speaking has to be done without the benefit of having a face behind it—decoding the ambiguous, adding a dash of wry twist, a shade of malevolence, or evidence of irony.

And each character has to have his own voice.  You’ve read those books – where there have to be tons of attributions (she said, he said) because without them, you wouldn’t have a clue which character was talking.  And sometimes the attributions have to be very specific (he said angrily, she whimpered) because the dialogue doesn’t clue you in on nuance or emotion either.  In good writing, you can hear the voices as you read.  You know one character because he speaks in short bursts, or he uses simple words and sentence fragments, or he meanders.  And another because the words he uses are characteristic ones.  Different rhythms for each character.  Different timing.

So as you are coming to understand a character you’re writing, you’ll have to “hear” his voice, also – every time he speaks. Or she speaks.  Think about it – in real life, you can tell who’s talking in the other room by the voice.  And not just the pitch of the voice, but the style of expression.  You hear in your head, and you write what you hear.

Which means that, as you establish characters,  you have to remember that men and women have markedly different ways of expressing things.   Men tend to be direct and short spoken.  And they DON’T tend to talk about feelings.  Women use five hundred words for every one word a man would use, and they DO talk about emotions.  And ask personal questions.  And get huffy.   Then again, if you’re writing a romance  everybody talks like a woman.  Unless a character is silent – a sure hallmark of the masculine.  Or if you’re talking about a sword woman, she might just talk more like a guy.

But I digress.  My point here was about characters always saying exactly the right thing.  Which is not the way dialogue usually goes in real life.

Mark Twain once tried to put real talk into a book.  He took a bus ride (horse drawn, jah?) and wrote down, word for word, every conversation he could hear.  And then, when he wrote his next story, he tried to put all that dialogue into it, again – word for word.  But he found out that the spoken word doesn’t translate to the page.  And if you want to understand why, try the same experiment.  You’ll find that most conversation happens in fits and starts – filler sounds, half voiced ideas filled in with hand gestures.  And we interrupt each other continually – finishing each other’s sentences, disagreeing, jumping into the middle of sentence that turned completely on a single charged word.  The rhythm of what is spoken is odd, erratic, and the words chosen often depend on shared personal context.

So a writer has to edit life.  She has to pare down the million words into a few that pack all the meaning tightly, that state clearly the things that move along the plot.  So yes, when you listen to a script or read a book, quite often, the speaker says exactly the right thing.  Which is why we read, right?  Because, I mean, you can actually learn phrases and speech patterns the way you learn a song by listening to it.  And then, maybe someday YOU can say the perfect thing.  If the perfect moment ever shows up.


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