Uncle Orson's Writing Class
Discussion of Dialogue and Style
August 14, 1998
I would like to use the discussion in Lesson One as a springboard to my own inquiry. I understand that obsessively analyzing the style in which one writes can lead to bigger problems. However, my problem is not with an overall stylistic deficiency, but a very specific one. Through dialogue, the voices of the characters speak with one another. Are there any techniques you can offer which make the process of composing dialogue any easier? (I don't expect a wonder formula, just some methods which would help me organize my thoughts a little better.)
-- Submitted by Jennifer Dittrich
The secret is not to think about dialogue as a separate task. You aren't writing
dialogue, you're writing an encounter between characters. Part of the encounter is what they say,
but part of it is how they react to each other, what they want from each other, what has happened
between them in the past, who else is watching and the impression they want to make, and so on.
When the characters speak, therefore, they aren't "speaking dialogue," they're using words to do
something to the other person -- sometimes to try to get the other person to understand some
information, but more often to get the other person to do something or feel something or reveal
something. That's what you concentrate on, and then come up with words you might use to
accomplish that character's purpose. Sometimes you'll try many different opening lines as a
conversation begins, and see where they go; sometimes you'll erase long passages because they
don't feel right to you. But the solution to dialogue problems is rarely to "write better dialogue."
It's almost always to clarify or change what the character wants or feels or thinks.
Most often, bad dialogue is bad because it's "clunky." The usual cause is that you're trying to
"write well," and your idea of writing well comes from the horrible essays you were forced to
write in high school and college. Forget all that! But don't forget it just when you're writing
dialogue -- that's bad writing even in the essays and papers produced by those very same
teachers! Good writing sounds like a person talking. Your narrative sections should be written
in fluid language that can easily be read aloud. In other words, your narrative should sound like
dialogue spoken by a good storyteller!
So if you worry about your writing style, especially your dialogue writing, chances are that the
problem you have is that you are worrying about your writing style instead of worrying about
what happens and why in the story! Bad style is almost invariably the result of trying for "good
style," because "good style" is invariably defined by writing teachers and the students who
believe them as "writing like someone else who writes better than you." But you can't write like
them, because you're not them and their voice isn't your voice. You can only write well when
you write the way you talk, only more clearly and precisely. If you are laboriously constructing
your sentences, searching in the thesaurus for "just the right word," you are almost certainly
writing unreadably; and, while you might only notice it in your dialogue, chances are you are
writing badly all the time.
How do you cure this destructive habit? Let me give you a parallel example. When I was a
child, I had a lyric boy-soprano voice, complete with vibrato. I sang high and sweetly, and that
ability to sing was an important part of who I was. But when my voice changed, the "high" was
gone and so was the sweet. Grimly determined to get my voice back, I forced a vibrato using
very bad technique -- a strained, rapid diaphragmatic vibrato rather than one that arises from a
relaxed throat. It made my voice sound eccentric and unpleasant -- and the tightness that
resulted severely limited my range. I went through my college career with that voice, even
though I knew it didn't sound all that good, because I didn't know how to do it better.
Then I went to Brazil as a missionary. Nobody there knew me as a performer. No one cared
how I sang. I stripped away the old pretense and sang "straight," with clear tone, no vibrato at
all. I learned to relax my throat. I sounded like nothing; and then, to my surprise, a genuine,
relaxed vibrato began to enter my voice on sustained notes. And my singing range increased,
both higher and lower. When I came home, my singing voice was a far more versatile and
powerful instrument than it had ever been before. During my forced-vibrato years, I couldn't "do
voices" -- I could only sing the one way. Now I could take my relaxed voice and shape it to
sound like an old man singing, or a child, or an untrained singer, or an operatic buffoon. I could
sing conversationally; I could sing formally. I had my voice at last.
But I had to stop trying to force my voice and just relax, concentrating on the song and not the
singer. Before I could sing well, I had to stop trying to sing well and concentrate on singing
clearly, singing to the audience.
And if you don't understand how this applies to writing style, I'm not a good enough writer to
explain it to you any better.