Log in

No account? Create an account
An author of no particular popularity

Jay Lake
Date: 2008-03-13 19:24
Subject: [process] Working on Green, thinking about dialog
Security: Public
Location:Nuevo Rancho Lake
Music:house noises
Tags:green, process, stories, writing
I'm working on Green. It's going well, thank you. But I've started thinking about dialog all of the sudden.

It's a convention of literature (or at least the subspecies thereof which I write) that people speak in clear, declarative sentences. Often these sentences occur in long paragraphs. Also they sometimes support more convoluted affairs from which subordinate clauses depend and into which comma splices are mashed.

Yet if you look at transcriptions of real conversations — not formal speech such as classroom lecturing or political oration, but true dialog between ordinary people — nobody talks that way.

Well, ok, I sometimes do. And it's not a terribly uncommon Fannish/Proish affectation to speak in that manner. But you take my point.

I am hardly the first person to whom this has occurred, and at some level I've always known this, at least since college linguistics courses somewhere back in the long ago.

Once Green clears my desk, I am intent on writing some dialog-heavy short fiction which attempts to reflect the patterns of everyday conversation. It will be interesting to see whether I can succeed at that.

Post A Comment | 33 Comments | | Flag | Link

Page 1 of 2
<<[1] [2] >>
it's a great life, if you don't weaken: bad girls  mae west
User: matociquala
Date: 2008-03-14 02:38 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:bad girls mae west
Heh. I've done dialogue transcription for linguistics classes. You will be using the words "like" and "um" a lot, and nobody will want to read the stories.

Reply | Thread | Link

Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2008-03-14 02:41 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
In all seriousness, I'm more thinking of the constant mutual interruption, false starts and repetitions. Which we tend to edit out of conversations both on the fly and in memory. But it's still bugging me to see these neat, complete sentences on the page, answered in kind.
Reply | Parent | Thread | Link | Expand

User: dirkcjelli
Date: 2008-03-14 02:40 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
people get interrupted reasonably often, and/or distracted.

Might want to 'improve' people's dialog just a bit by leaving out some of the "umms" and "likes" and so forth.
Reply | Thread | Link

Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2008-03-14 02:42 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
When I'm writing secondary world or (quasi)high fantasy, I have to purge certain words and expressions which are pure modernisms, such as "ok". Trying to figure out which of those little semantic nulls you refer to can possibly stay in will be a neat trick.
Reply | Parent | Thread | Link

calendula_witch: PV gothic
User: calendula_witch
Date: 2008-03-14 02:46 (UTC)
Subject: talkin and writin
Keyword:PV gothic
Um...yeah. As a former professional transcriber of oral history interviews (and trainer and supervisor of same), I have given this matter some thought. Okay, lots of thought.

You cannot, simply cannot, write dialogue the way people actually talk. Review a few court transcripts to understand this immediately. It's an unreadable mish-mash of "um"s and false starts and wrong words and utter nonsense.

Written dialogue can, however, be quite casual--can have a few (telling) false starts, hesitations, the like. Can be quite ungrammatical. Cannot, however, be exactly as real human beings talk.

When I was transcribing 40 hours a week, I used to keep doing it in my head when I was talking with people casually--I couldn't help it. It was extremely enlightening.

I gave a paper at an international Oral History Association meeting once, comparing four different transcribers' work on the same 10-minute segment of an interview, supposedly "verbatim" transcripts, showing how very different the interpretations were. FREAKED THOSE ORAL HISTORIANS OUT. Heh heh.

Anyway, I'm interested to see what your experiment comes up with. :-)
Reply | Thread | Link

User: etcet
Date: 2008-03-14 02:49 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I like to think I do "natural" dialog well.

Unfortunately, much like most genuine conversation, it's pretty goddamned boring for all that.
Reply | Thread | Link

User: swan_tower
Date: 2008-03-14 02:52 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I had my students go listen to their friends at lunch or dinner or whenever, then come back for our dialogue week in class and give me examples of things people do in real speech. It was eye-opening for them, to say the least.

Me, I learned that even more inescapably, the first time I donned my anthropologist hat and sat down to transcribe an interview. A perfectly articulate friend looked like a moron when I put his words on the page, because of all the false starts, subject/verb disagreements, hesitations, and more.

I'm not sure the idea of "realistic dialogue" appeals to me. Our brains process language differently when hearing it than when seeing it on the page, and also much of the appeal of engaging speech is pacing and inflection, that's pretty comprehensively lost when the aural element goes away. I'm sure it's possibly to write dialogue that gives the sense of being like everyday conversation, but it will probably accomplish that by means other than actually mimicking the same.
Reply | Thread | Link

Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2008-03-14 02:57 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I'm sure it's possibly to write dialogue that gives the sense of being like everyday conversation, but it will probably accomplish that by means other than actually mimicking the same.

Actually, I'm pretty much of the same assumption. I'm just suddenly bothered by how mannered my dialog is right now.
Reply | Parent | Thread | Link | Expand

User: farmgirl1146
Date: 2008-03-14 02:55 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Informal speech, contractions, jargon (as long as it is defined somewhere or not necessary to define because of context), and choppy, incomplete sentences are great, imho.

Dialog is best when the speech patterns of each character is distinct.

The "uhms" and "errrs" of real speech can be added in lightly.

I belonged to a writing group, once upon a time, that had a number of very vocal members who wanted every sentence to be perfect grammatically. Everything sounded stupidly arch. That group went the way of the dodo bird.
Reply | Thread | Link

(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand
robin catesby
User: deedop
Date: 2008-03-14 03:43 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I got my writing start doing children's theater scripts based in part on transcribed tapes of improvisational sessions. The transcriptions are buffed quite a bit, but much of the rhythm remains and helps shape the scene--cut-offs building to a crescendo, for example. I carry that technique (and my long stint in acting/directing classes) with me into just about everything I write. I'd like to believe it keeps me at least somewhat honest and unstilted. OTOH, there's a place for formal speech when the world building calls for it.
Reply | Thread | Link

Rose Fox: words
User: rosefox
Date: 2008-03-14 03:56 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Reflecting the patterns of everyday conversation is one thing. Reflecting the mechanics of everyday conversation is another thing.

Also, a lot depends on who you're transcribing. I just transcribed a voice post from the_xtina where she instructed the transcriptionist to use ellipses when noting her exhausted pauses mid-sentence. Many of the doctors I interview are used to giving lectures, and they slip naturally into full-sentence, one-paragraph-per-Powerpoint-slide mode when they're on the phone with me; part of my job is to lead them with questions that will encourage that style, so that when I transcribe their words they don't sound like idiots. My brother has done so much moot court and student senate arguing that he speaks in paragraphs and footnotes. There are also people who stammer, people who stutter, people who speak before they think, people whose public speaking or official speaking is entirely different from their private speech with family or friends and also entirely different from their jargon-laden speech with colleagues, people who use baby talk with pets and children and people who don't, etc.

I recommend Overheard in New York for some great transcriptions of people as they really speak, actually. There's still some editing out of ums and ahs, but the rhythms of speech and the richness of vocabulary are beautifully intact.
Reply | Thread | Link

User: sheelangig
Date: 2008-03-14 03:57 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)

I remember a radio contest I used to hear. The DJs semi-regularly offered a prize to anyone who called in and could speak clearly, on any topic, for more than 30 seconds without an "ummm" or other filler. They didn't get many winners.

Reply | Thread | Link

The Green Knight
User: green_knight
Date: 2008-03-14 07:34 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Just a minute....

There's a show on BBC Radio 4, called 'Just a Minute', in which contestants have to speak on any topic without hesitation, deviation, or repetition. Every now and again someone manages a whole minute of it - but much more often are they caught out.

Highly reccommended!
Reply | Parent | Thread | Link

User: kenrand
Date: 2008-03-14 04:00 (UTC)
Subject: dialog
Jay, working in radio, I understood what you're saying back in 1968. I once wrote a short story with six characters in it. I wanted at least one scene where all six spoke and there was no attribution. Could I make it coherent? Anyway, it was an important early exercise (I did sell the story).
Look up what James Gun writes about dialogue. His concept, broadly stated, is that speech is to writen dialogue as seven is to one. When I heard that, I went back to somoe old stories and shortened some of them by, um, A Whole Lot.
Reply | Thread | Link

jeffsoesbe: bald man thinking cap
User: jeffsoesbe
Date: 2008-03-14 05:28 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:bald man thinking cap
In acting classes, we would interview each other, transcribe it, and then re-perform it in their voice using exactly their words and cadence. You learn a lot about how people *really* dialog, and it's quite fun.

For examples in plays of *real* dialog, check out Harold Pinter ("Betrayal", for example) and David Mamet ("American Buffalo", "Glengarry Glen Ross" and "Sexual Perversity in Chicago" come to mind). Interesting stuff...

- yeff
Reply | Thread | Link

Mindy Klasky
User: mindyklasky
Date: 2008-03-14 10:34 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I was just scrolling through the comments before I made my own, but you've made it for me - I, too, was going to check out Mamet.

As a former stage manager who worked on too many Mamet plays, I grew very accustomed to *listening* to his dialog, rather than watching the play (too busy following cues, etc., to watch.) You could achieve the same results by renting one of the movies (Glengarry is particularly good) and "watching" with eyes closed. The rhythm is what fascinated me (along with multiple uses of words that start with F---).

Reply | Parent | Thread | Link | Expand

paulcarp: pic#67230600
User: paulcarp
Date: 2008-03-14 07:41 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
"Don't you think that, like, eye contact..."
"Arm movements and such?"
"Yeah--you get my point--some things people are--"
"You can't just read those things, you hafta..."
"I know. It's shorthand, in a way, kind of like those Egyptian poses show motion where, you know, they aren't actually the way anyone looks..?"
"And I still don't think they look right wrapped around a vase or an urn or whatever."
"Well...anyway, I just think you can't write down the way people talk."
"If someone were to talk in a clear, concise sentence that followed the logical pattern of the preceding dialog, it would somehow seem unnatural."
Reply | Thread | Link

The Green Knight: Words
User: green_knight
Date: 2008-03-14 08:00 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Why should dialogue be different from everything else?

As I see it, we're not striving for verisimilitude in any other area of the narrative. We cut the waking up and resetting the alarm for another fifteen minutes the turning over and blissful snoozing as you go back to a half-forgotten dream and cut to "There was a phoenix on her windowsill. And this time, it was real."

And if the morning is less eventful, we cut it out, because we all know how mornings are passed, and there just isn't space enough in a book for something that isn't unique and isn't important.

And thus, in dialogue, we cut out the clutter and the 'how are you' and bonding over TV at the beginning of a conversation, and come straight to the point.

It's a convention of literature (or at least the subspecies thereof which I write) that people speak in clear, declarative sentences. Often these sentences occur in long paragraphs. Also they sometimes support more convoluted affairs from which subordinate clauses depend and into which comma splices are mashed.

I don't know. Right now, reaching for the books that are scattered around my desk (which is where books migrate that I want to quote from; the library is next door), I can come up with a lot more examples where people speak in short sentences, supported by action and stage direction, than long and convoluted dialogue paragraphs. The exception being Dorothy Sayers, who uses *very* long, unparagraphed, reasonably authentic speech that feels breathless and somewhat quaint.

Every time the reader has to stop and decipher what is written, the text as a whole _loses something._ That goes for superfluous parts of speech as much as the rendering of thick accents and the err, um, you know, like, thingies.

And it also goes for the way in which people will talk about a topic and come back to it, get interrupted, follow a completely unrelated turn of thought, get into an argument about something else again, and come back to the original topic.

If done exceedingly well, it can be fun to read. But I've found a few passages in earlier drafts that benefited greatly from a somewhat articifial reminder to characters to stay on topic - the results were *much* clearer and *much* easier to read.

In the end, what I'm trying to do with the dialogue is no different than what I'm trying to achieve in the rest of the text - clarity and a distinctive line for the reader to follow.
Reply | Thread | Link

User: martyn44
Date: 2008-03-14 10:08 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Try writing the story in dialogue - ie, a radio play. No description, no scene scetting, just voices. Individual voices telling the story.

Then apply the lessons to your prose. It isn't just a matter of ruthlessly editing out the umms and the ahhs and the non sequiturs because they can convey character better than a whole page of description, used right.

Dialogue is showtime for character, rather than telling, and you know which is more effective.
Reply | Thread | Link

User: jp_davis
Date: 2008-03-14 10:36 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I know it's been said, but I'm going to join the "bad idea" crowd. As someone who reviews a lot of transcripts, the reason dialogue is different on a page is because there are elements of live speech that simply do not translate well onto a page (tone, inflection, etc.) Essentially, when you put down dialogue as it is actually said, you lose so much that you have to restructure it in order for it to be sensical.

And that straight cuts out all the pause words, false starts, interruptions, and people just plain saying something they don't mean, which happens alot.

That said, I strive in my writing to bring some form of realism to speech patterns, which I think you can definitely do. Striving to mimic dialogue as it in reality is, though, is not a good idea.
Reply | Thread | Link

Page 1 of 2
<<[1] [2] >>
my journal
January 2014
2012 appearances