Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Hearing is Believing...Or Is It?

This may be significant, or it may mean nothing. But it got my attention, so see what you think. To wit: Recently, I heard yet another of the many paeans of praise, after the fact, for The Sopranos. Now, I never watched the show for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that if I want to spend a couple of hours a night listening to the “f” word, I can do it through myriad means online, anytime. (Spare me the arguments about “That’s how real people talk,” or even “That’s how these people talk.” The real people I know don’t talk that way, and the Mafia do a lot of things I don’t want in my living room. ‘Nuff said.) But enough people around me were fans of it, including a local radio personality who brought up the fact that the reason he loved the writing of the show so much is because of how good the dialogue was. Now did he love it because the characters used witty repartee? Nope. Did he love it because it sparkled, because it “clicked,” because it hummed along almost lyrically? Nope. He loved it so much because it sounded like real people talking. Complete with “ummms” and “ahhs” and flubbed up and misused words. As he put it, “No one else on TV or in the movies does that. All the other dialogue in most things sounds fake. It’s too perfect. People never trip over a word, they never get tongue-tied, they never say one word when they’re thinking of another one, except if they’re going for comedy. But in real life, everybody does that. So these writers made you feel not like you were watching a script, but like you were watching real people just go through their lives, mistakes and all. That’s genius.” It might be genius in this guy’s eyes. But it’s also pointedly, diametrically opposite of the way we’ve all been told to write dialogue. If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times. In fiction, dialogue should perform more than one function. Ideally, it shouldn’t be just “the way people talk,” it shouldn’t have those embarrassing lapses in it (unless, as the man said, you’re going for a deliberate effect), and it shouldn’t have “ums” or “ahs” or all that stuff. The idea is to make it sound like real people talking…only streamlined. A little cleaned up, if you will. Ideally, then, dialogue gives the illusion that you’re with these people in real life, only it doesn’t waste your time with real-life hemming and hawing. So who’s right? Or are we both? And who’s actually writing people that sound like real people? This isn’t the first time I’ve run into the “dialogue” question, either. My son once remarked that “your characters tend to talk like you do. They sound like you, Mom.” That was a mixed critique at best. On one hand, of course, I was writing people like me: people who saw the world the same way I did, who spoke with a similar vocabulary, etc. I was “writing what I knew” in that sense. In another sense, of course, that’s a killing indictment of a work. If all the characters sound like you, they’re not people in their own right, and that means you have some work to do. My only consolation on this point is that I have lots of company in this fault. Lots and lots of people are guilty of this, and some of us get away with it. I was trying to read a novella once where in one story, I literally could not tell the characters apart. To this day, I can’t tell you those characters’ names or anything about them, because they had no distinguishing “voices” on the page—and I didn’t stick around reading long enough to give them time to develop same. Had this book not been by a multipublished and bestselling author, I would assume, it might not have made it out of the gate. But the fact that it was, and it did, makes the offense even worse. The good news is that this kind of problem is easily fixed, with enough creativity and time spent inside characters’ skins. But the first “problem” mentioned here has me wondering. Obviously, a screenplay can get away with “sloppier” dialogue in the sense that the experience a viewer has is more multilayered; while they’re listening to Tony Soprano come up with a malapropism, it’s a part of the total viewing experience. I suspect we don’t have that luxury in books, where the flat words on the page have to do so much more for a reader than the words of dialogue have to do on a screen. But I do have to wonder if, because of things like the writing on certain television shows, we’re coming to a point where we’re going to be asked to make our characters, in a sense, less articulate and more “real.” Is there a method by which we can, literally, do both? Have articulate characters speak dialogue that accomplishes what we’ve all been taught it’s supposed to do…while the people still sound real and not “fake” or “too perfect”? Thoughts? Janny

1 comment:

Deb said...

James Clavell ("Shogun" "Noble House" "Tai-Pan") was a master at this technique. His dialogue really did sound real. Sometimes his characters would get half a word out of their mouth, just like real people do, only to be interrupted by another speaker or something much more cataclysmic. "What's that in the bask--" and then the character gets garrotted from behind.

You get my meaning. The way Clavell did it, you always knew what it was the character had been about to say, but he cuts them off mid-word, and it's very effective. I've tried for a little of that, but haven't mastered the technique.