THE GREAT MYTH OF NATURALISTIC DIALOGUE
I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but there really is no such thing as dialogue that truly reflects the spoken word. Making dialogue sound ‘natural’ is as much part of the craft of writing as structuring a plot or creating a convincing character. In fact, there is nothing ‘natural’ about it. It’s an illusion.
I learned this the hard way, firstly by writing plays for stage and radio, and secondly by transcribing videos and audio tapes. I found that when I read my stage and radio dialogue out loud, I couldn’t actually say it. It felt as if I was deliberately writing tongue-twisters, although it all looked fine on the page. This vague realisation that writing words that are meant to be read requires a different mind-set to writing words that are meant to be said only crystallized when, some years later, in my other job as a translator, I spent long hours transcribing audio tapes.
That wasn’t just an eye-opener, it was an ear-opener as well. Quite apart from feeling that I was being paid to eavesdrop, it was possibly the single most valuable thing I’ve done in terms of honing how I write dialogue. So as not to miss a single word, I had to listen over and over to how people actually speak, and frankly, it was disturbing. Honestly, people talk such a load of old rubbish. How anybody follows the thread of a conversation is a mystery. We start sentences that we don’t finish, we interrupt one another, we ‘um’ and we ‘ah’ constantly throughout, we make up words, we insert irrelevant non-sequiturs and veer off at a tangent. In all my transcriptions, the only people who made any sense on paper were those who knew that their words would be transcribed, because it was a regular part of their job. Oddly, the noticeable thing about their speech was that it sounded as if they were reading from a script, because they spoke in such unnaturally complete, measured sentences.
All writers struggle to make the spoken word easy on the reader’s eye, while retaining the flavour of speech. This is further complicated by the need to ensure that what a character says reflects their personality, education and background. They all need an unique, recognisable ‘voice’. The one advantage of a novel is that you can reinforce this by using a character’s inner voice within the narrative, which comments and analyses, but they still have to speak at some point. There are devices which help – using a phrase rather than a whole sentence, making dialogue snappier by leaving out ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ for a few lines, and suggesting interruption by very occasionally letting a character say half a sentence, before someone else butts in. Yet, whatever devices we use, it will be in the knowledge that we are basically trying to reconcile two polar opposites – spoken and written words.
It’s all smoke and mirrors, as I said.
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