Saturday, October 12, 2013

The More We Know One Another the Less We Say: The Difficulty with Dialogue

Meeting with students about a film script they’re revising, we discuss the difficulty of writing dialogue.  Specifically, we talk about one issue:  balancing how the characters might talk to one another with what the reader needs to know.
            When people say dialogue is stilted, they usually mean people wouldn’t talk that way to one another.  I frequently see scripts and stories where friends constantly use each other’s names, but, in life, most of us rarely do.  We use the names when we’re talking about them, but not when we’re talking to them.  Or, often the dialogue in a work might be serving purely expository purposes and conveying information that the characters already know, such as,  “Catherine, as your best friend, I think you need to quit this waitressing job that you’ve had for three years to go to college even though I know you’re worried about whether you’re smart enough.”
Friends, or people who have known each other for a long time, have a set of shared experiences, and they use these to develop a language or shorthand.  When I take my children to afternoon swim team practices, we have a choice of three different times.  At first I would text my wife, “At the Y for second practice.”  After awhile this became, “At 2nd practice.”  Then, “2nd.”  Now when my wife receives a text in the afternoon from me that says, “2,” she knows it means, “I have taken our kids to the YWCA for the second practice of their swimming team.”
She also knows this means that we’ll be there for a certain amount of time and that it will have ramifications for our dinner and evening plans.  She has an idea of what we might have done before (nothing if it’s first practice, homework if it’s second).  She knows I might meet certain people – swimmers, families, coaches, and Y goers -- who are usually at that time and place.  And, if I talked to her in the morning about intending to take them to first practice, she knows something has happened to change my thinking and the trajectory of the day.  That “2” conveys an enormous amount of information. However, we’re the only ones who understand it.
            So, the difficulty of writing dialogue is to convey that complexity and richness of relationships while not confusing the reader and viewers.
            Screenwriters are lucky in that film allows the visuals to do this.  One of my favorite scenes in Broadcast News has James Brooks on the phone with his best friend Holly Hunter, and he says something like, “I’ll meet you at that place where we did that thing.”  She understands him perfectly, and the audience does as well.  The dialogue shows their close understanding, and the next scene shows us where they are.
            In Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway wrote, "If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.  The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water."
             One way to accomplish this "practice of omission" is to pare down dialogue.  Dialogue doesn't simply convey people’s voices – the way they speak --  but their relationships, and usually the more we know one another, the less we say.  It's not particular works of art, but people themselves that are ice bergs.

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