“Words don’t deserve that kind of malarkey. They’re innocent, neutral, precise, standing for this, describing that, meaning the other, so if you look after them you can build bridges across incomprehension and chaos. But when they get their corners knocked off, they’re no good anymore...I don’t think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little.”
I am currently rehearsing a role in a play by Tom Stoppard, and this monologue makes me so happy I could cry. I don't get to act it, these are Henry’s words from The Real Thing, he is responding to his wife’s accusation that he’s a writing snob. The dude’s a snob for sure, about lots of crap, but about words, about the respect they’re due? No. He is spot on. This is beautiful dialogue, Henry would absolutely say all of this. He’s got this diatribe running in his head constantly, just waiting for the right moment to bust it out, and here it is - it is glorious and real and I love it so, so much.
The first time I knew amazing choices of words delighted me and crappy ones made me want to rip my own arm off and eat it, I was like twelve? Thirteen? I begged my mom to drive me to the Placerville Cinema 4 again and again so I could pay to see Terms Of Endearment a dozen times. I could not get enough of that thing. Oh God, Debra Winger grabbing her errant son’s face from her death bed to tell him, “Tommy be sweet. Be sweet.” Ahrghgh! All the times they didn’t speak, right when they shouldn’t. Perfect.
And then there was this show on T.V. called first, I think, Valerie. It was about Valerie Harper and her family, her oldest son was played by Jason Bateman. Somewhere in the second season there were contract negotiation problems and Valerie was killed off, Sandy Duncan and her glass eye came in to be the Aunt and take over the family, and the show was re-named Valerie’s Family. Snap. So, the first episode without Valerie, Jason Bateman is walking among the crumbling ruins of the family house which has burned down, and he finds a photograph of Valerie (ooh, double snap!) and he says, “Remember when mom died in that car crash?” and then he huddles over the frame and starts sobbing. My twelve year old sensibilities were rattled to the core, absolutely stunned that such a stupid, clunky line could make it’s way onto a show as intelligent and socially relevant as Valerie’s Family. Which later was called, simply, The Hogans, and then it got cancelled. Probably for having such horrible dialogue.
Dialogue. I tell you what, and my husband accuses me of being a writing snob when I say this, but to this day, like a ton of other people, the biggest deal breaker for me in movies and books is always, always bad dialogue. I can forgive a dumb plot, probably because I’m no plot master myself - it is difficult work for me to give up my meandering scenes featuring flying geese and descriptions of rain storms and just get the hell on with the story - but you give people stupid things to say and I’m out. I can’t sit through it and besides it pisses me off because People, it’s not that hard! Here’s the test: If you are writing something realistic in a natural setting, would anyone in life ever say what you just made your character say? No? There’s your answer. Bad. If it’s a stylized thing, does what you’ve made your character say make any sense in the context of the vocabulary and world they’re in? No? Bad.
Trite, stupid stuff coming out of people’s mouths is so infuriating to me - in movies too - because some jackasses put millions of dollars into that crap, you're telling me someone can't throw a couple bucks at the writers or editors to keep dialogue like this out of life: “Hold me, Like you did by the lake on Naboo..” For God’s sake. “I’m just a girl, standing in front of a boy...” Come on. Not to confuse bad acting with bad dialogue (“Is it still raining? I hadn’t noticed.” KILL ME NOW.) and yes there are people who can make bad stuff sound great, and actors who can ruin amazing words. But when I am reading a book, I am the actor, and I need good dialogue. And maybe I get even crankier with books than movies because authors have time, we’ve got total control over every word chosen, why choose the wrong ones?
To be fair to the writers of The Hogans, the biggest challenge, I think, always comes with tackling exposition. But don’t exclusively burden the dialogue with it, jeez! I personally find it effective to go back and take all my exposition, highlight it, and figure out if I can show all that somewhere instead. Is there any place to fit this action in, in real time, like show a quick funeral or lion attack so Aunt Paula doesn’t have to be all, “Hey guys, remember that time mom died?”
Now, right here is the perfect spot to point out that obviously I am a novice novel writer, and I’m sure the negative revues of my forthcoming novel will all point to the crappy dialogue, so how lame of me to get all janky and snippy about it here. But I will say this: I am, at least, trying. Putting thought into it. A ton of thought, and agonizing over every word. In grad school I studied playwriting, which is all about Dialogue and Setting, both of which I love to indulge in, as I’ve mentioned, often to the detriment of plot. But in my books I am doing my level best to make certain that when people aren’t doing anything, they’re at least saying really good stuff in interesting ways that won’t bore a person or make one throw the book out a window. I hope.
Go forth, Writers! Be brave, let other people read your stuff and listen to their comments, sift out the useful ones and don’t let your characters say dumb things. Writing is so hard. And also it is simple. And complicated. And easy. And impossible. And fun. And agonizing. It is Work. Like anything else worth doing. And like words themselves, like the reader who will spend hours and hours with your story, the work deserves respect.
Hey. Remember that time you read a really long blog post instead of working on your book?