Philosophy of Writing – 18 – Dialogue II.

Posted on March 14, 2013 by


Michigan Avenue 2012 (Lights in Chicago series) Flash photography. Satoki Nagata |

Michigan Avenue 2012 (Lights in Chicago series)
Flash photography.
Satoki Nagata |

When you get good at dialogue all your characters begin to sound the same.

You know what people as a whole realistically say. You’ve cut out As-You-Know-Bobisms and Repeat-the-Nameisms. You write dialogue quickly and smoothly. But this familiarity means you also have shortcuts you’ve learned through your fingers over the years — my muscle memory tells me the same phrases over and over — so maybe there’s a scene or an image or a quirk of speech spread out over your writing because it’s stuck with you. I try to ferret these out like a surgeon with an apple-corer. Fine.

Another problem: I can’t remove a trend — and shortcuts are there because my thought flows through reinforced neural channels, and maybe some of those shortcuts aren’t as simple as a string of words repeated over and over. Maybe they’re complex filters of thought through which I see the world. So maybe when I get good at dialogue I write it so quickly that some characters will be the same person rebounding thought to themselves like a squash game against a mirror. You can’t remove trends that easily.

A line of speech is a puff of soul: each phrase a character says is a brief exhalation of vapour produced by their unique neural configurations. Unless your writing specifically calls for artificial/limited characters (genre-nonspecific tongue-in-cheek is the best example I can come up with) you want to write real people. So your sociopathic killer fits real mental illnesses rather than pop-psych, your hero is not spewing lines from your favourite anime series — you know all of this already, because we’ve already established that you’re good at this.

What about you? What if you have a specific section of your brain designated as “character nursery” and from it comes one or two people, repeated over and over, because your own brain is a template you can’t avoid?

I’m discussing solutions with you because, frankly, this is a problem I’m experiencing right now, au courant, in my writing. Maybe we should write down what people say when they piss us off so much we’re left speechless? Although I suspect we’ll lose friends. Perhaps make a note of someone’s logic when it’s alien and parse it epistemologically, i.e. what knowledge or suppositions must they have to speak this way?

I’m open to ideas. I’m sure I’ll always write like me, because the authorial voice is what other people find interesting about writing: the author’s channels of thought, available in text. But when I write dialogue I shouldn’t write like me — I should write like someone else, who’s playing a part that I designate. Maybe that’s a collaborative project I should explore: I write the description, and I have other writers compose the dialogue, one author per speaker.

As I think about it, I can only come up with two basic approaches to this problem:

1) Train myself to write like different people.

  • look up psychological conditions
  • diametric opposition: what would I say, ok, now what would I not say
  • controlled schizophrenia: living with a character for so long that it develops a separate psychological reality
  • give up: develop a “character corral” with a few necessary players, get them out every time I need a stereotype, and tack on flourishes to differentiate

2) Use found dialogue.

  • spy on conversations
  • gonzo journalism as a resource
  • get other people to do my dialogue

Any more ideas?


Relevant to this post: Stanislavski and Voice