Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Believable dialogue

I wrote this a while back, but feel it bears repeating.

It’s interesting sometimes, hearing what people say when they don’t realize they have an audience. Mind you, it’s almost as interesting when they DO know they have an audience, but for entirely different reasons.
I absolutely love listening to people. I also tend to think it’s part of the job. I write fiction, and as I’ve said before, I think characters are very likely the most important aspect of that. If a plot is a little crazy, if the situations the characters get into are demented or nearly impossible to get out of, that almost comes with the territory, especially when dealing with the fantastic. But if they characters feel false, the rest of the story is likely to fall on its face. And just as likely to break something in the fall, I might add.
Think about it: that truck driver with the drinking problem who barely graduated high school and hasn’t read anything stronger than a copy of the National Enquirer in years? If he starts talking like a valedictorian from the Harvard School of Law without a damned good reason, it’s going to likely knock the reader right out of the story. As I have said before and likely will again, that is one of the biggest sins for me. Make the characters breathe and live and the rest will at least seem a bit easier, both for the writer and the reader.
I have pointed out before and will again a situation I ran across once. I was proofreading another writer’s work and enjoying the story. The action was good, the plot was solid and the characters were interesting enough. But as I was enjoying a tale of two wizards duking it out in a mystical battle, one of the two magic users who is supposed to be engaged in a battle of life and death proportions pauses long enough to say something along the lines of “Ah, I see you’ve decided to cast a Sphere of Doom” or the equivalent there of. Seriously. Have you ever been in a fight? If you’re sparring with someone in a light contact match or you’re teaching someone how to throw a punch, you MIGHT consider pausing to comment on their choice of attacks. In a real life and death situation, it’s not going to happen. It’s just not. The odds are good you aren’t going to be admiring the style of the spell someone is casting if that someone is trying to blow your head off your shoulders. That’s the equivalent of looking at the handgun your enemy is aiming at your face and saying, “Damn, that’s a mighty fine .357 you have there. Good job on keeping it polished. Say, are those hollow points you’re firing at me? Or are those glazer rounds?” Sorry, too busy not getting dead to offer praise.
In his defense the writer in question had never been in a serious fight. We discussed the matter. I believe the writer agreed with me and took out the line. Believability required a change in the dialogue. I have no doubt I’ve made similar errors over time and been schooled on them. It’s easy to get too caught up in what might sound good at the moment. When I’m in doubt, I read the lines out loud to see if they ring true. If they fail, I change them.
That said, let’s consider a few things I’ve heard. Some of which, for the record, might well end up in a book if they haven’t already. One of my personal favorites was second hand:  man I know quite well (and that I know is capable of handling himself in a serious fight) took a look at a complete stranger parking in a handicapped parking spot. The gent who was parking was not handicapped and did not have any reason to use that spot except that it was convenient. When he exited the car the capable fighter looked at him and asked, “Excuse me, are you handicapped?”
The fellow he was speaking to looked around and shook his head.
And the capable fighter smiled and asked, “Would you like to be?” A moment later the man he was speaking to parked his car in an area more appropriate to someone who is physically capable of walking without any difficulties.
Yeah. I totally stole that for a book. I made significant changes, but I stole it.
The thing I love most about conversations is that they can fire your imagination. Not just the words, but the situations that might bring those words around. Words spoken in anger and remembered later have a solid potence to them that can be haunting. I used a line once that I know I’d heard before and it took me a while to remember where I’d heard it. The line came from one of my coworkers who was reciting something he’d heard when he was a kid. He had to translate it from his native tongue but it basically came down to, “You’re going to have a hard time picking up your shattered teeth with your broken fingers.” That’s just vivid. Of course I had to use it. I changed it a bit, because that’s the nature of the beast. We work with what we remember and we take dramatic license.
The dialogue we use (or misuse) ideally reflects the characters we create, at least as much as their physical descriptions and the clothes they wear. And sometimes it takes a while for that dialogue to find a place where it fits.
A snippet I heard earlier tonight while I was out. From near the front registers I heard a man in his mid-thirties say to another man behind the line, “I’d say there’s a decent chance I’m going to jail tonight.” I’d been there long enough to know first that the line was absolutely unrelated to anything they’d been saying before that, and by the tone of his voice I knew he was joking. I took a look out the drive through window and could see well enough to know that he was referring to the woman driving the car at the window. She was most likely no older than eighteen. She could have been a little younger. Oh, before you go getting offended know that he was joking and that it was meant as a compliment. But it was a delightfully subtle way of being improper in a situation where no comments would likely be heard (I’m good at eavesdropping) and without any true vulgarity. Believe me, I’ve heard substantially worse and decidedly less imaginative lines from any number of teenagers both who worked with me and who were unaware that I was paying attention. I feel confident that the line above would have gone over the heads of a lot of teenagers, which was what I found so amusing about the situation.
Will I ever have a reason to use that line in a book? I have no idea. But it’s there and I remember it and right now, if I had a character who was appreciating a woman who was far too young, I might very well steal that line. Why? Because it’s real and it’s got personality. And that’s important in my book. It could easily help define a character without having to describe the very same. One more little step in trying to convince my readers that my words are more than make believe.

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