(with apologies for the briefness and the flashbacky nature of this post - - the day job has been eating up my time these last few weeks. It happens in retail around this time of year. And I still can’t figure why…)
It came up again recently. Back in 2005, on my original (and still occasionally updated!) blog, I talked about reading a book with dialogue so appalling that I could hardly believe my eyes.
I never read anything quite so bad again.
Until recently. With a book I simply had to finish because I couldn’t believe that every sentence was a cliché, like the author was playing some kind of game to see whether he could actually achieve such banal awfulnesss on such a scale. It didn’t help that the plot was a clichéd retread of every single serial killer novel you’ve ever read and also every movie you’ve ever seen (right up to the appallingly bad in their own right Saw movies).
But it was the dialogue. The unceasing, unsubtle tell-don’t-show dialogue that really made me keep reading. Like, I wanted to see if there was a single shred of human emotion in this book that might ring true.
And as in 2005, I thought about the comics writer, Brian Michael Bendis:
My goals for dialogue come from the fact that I so abhor exposition .Information has to be given to the reader, but I always ask myself if this dialogue I have written is something someone would say out loud.
This is something that runs true for me not just in dialogue, but in narration. A stilted and formal narration has me running for the hills every time. I have to feel like the story is flowing in a way similar to dialogue. Because I love those voices in my head when I read.
Listen to your friends. I mean, really listen. People do not talk in complete, perfectly structured sentences. People stutter, stammer, start and stop sentences in funny places. This is like music to me.
Oh, sing that Brother Bendis.
As I said back then, and as I still believe:
If you want to learn about real dialogue, you should read Bendis’s comic books (Ultimate Spider Man, Powers, the darkly noiresque Jinx, the fantastic run he did on Sam and Twitch where he made two supporting characters from the Godawful Spawn books take on amazing hardboiled lives of their own). You should also read Leonard and Charlie Stella. You should listen to your friends. You should listen to people in the supermarket queue. You should realise that, yes, all written dialogue is artifice, but it shouldn’t feel like artifice! And it shouldn't feel like anyone in the book is trying to tell the reader anything.
Dialogue. Its one of the hardest things you’ll ever write. But if you can get it right, let me tell you, to readers like me, it’ll sing right off the page. And we’ll love you for it.