Cullen’s Whiplash Writing Recommendations: Differential Dialogues

Hello, readers! Today we’re going to talk about the way people talk. We will do this in grounded, short sentences. Sometimes we’ll nod or shake our heads. Remember, we’re real people. Real people talk a certain way. Yes, really. Blast it, I can’t take this any longer! What real person criticizes another for deviating from some completely imaginary mainline of diction and dialect? There’s no one way that “real” people talk, and I’m sick of hearing otherwise. It’s one thing to be told that dialogue seems stilted or otherwise poorly written. That’s fair. What’s not is mandating that writers stuff themselves in a tidy little dialectic box to keep conversations in their writing “real.”

Now, we all know I’ve got a strange and doubtless unhealthy thing going with iconoclasm. I don’t really love it, and yet I can’t seem to tear myself away from it. Sometimes it forces me to experiment in ways that don’t work out well for me, yet I simply must have it. This has been a bad romance joke, brought to you by a 23-year-old with a history of moderate self-injury. Before I go further, I’ll clarify that I brought up iconoclasm (here, “the action of attacking or assertively rejecting cherished beliefs and institutions or established values and practices”) so you’ll understand my bias. At least in writing, I’m always drawn to creativity even when it’s not actually helpful. Now that you know this, my blog probably makes much more sense to you. Well, you’ve the shriveled mercy of knowing why my blog makes so little sense. It makes sense that it doesn’t make sense, that’s what I meant. At least now I’ve demonstrated how my obsession with newness can be bad, eh?

Going forward: yes, I did just admit to self-injury. It’s actually my segue, because abnormal bluntness is one of the first things we’re told not to use. “No one would come right out and say that!” Gentlefolk, I have Aspergers. I will come right out and say that as well as this and just about anything else I please. The universe gave me a neurological disorder and I’m going to milk every scrap of advantage I can from it, thank you kindly. I and other people grappling with one or more entries on the list of Alternate Brain Options don’t necessarily speak as you filthy normals do. (It’s a light jab, don’t muss your brows like that. It makes you look like a piranha.) Scientists don’t talk the way doctors do, and doctors who are scientists speak differently from either. I’m not joking. There’s a certain lexicon and diction both my parents have, and I’ve realized it comes from dictating things to unfeeling, unflinching computers with very finicky voice capture.

I don’t just mean tone. The words my parents choose aren’t the words your best friend Libby uses to talk about her coconut-banana milkshake. My father used to be an English teacher before he became a doctor, so that’s where roughly half my vocabulary comes from and probably explains why I hate all else that breathes with the deathless zeal of Hell’s own revenant. “Facetious” and “astringent” are two of my favorites from him. You can’t write a dad character who talks like my father does, because it’s “atypical.” That’s stupid. Not asinine, not imbecilic or idiotic or preposterously dense. It doesn’t deserve such flair, that idea’s just stupid. Sure, we’ll chat for hours and hours in our nice, safe chatty-words, but what if you could never say anything smart? What if every time you tried pulling on some of the bigger or stranger words you know, some jerk slapped you and told you “real people don’t talk like that?” I feel you’d find said miscreant’s sentiments loathsome in the extreme.

Some of you may be struggling to think of times you’ve actually heard this, and you’re not wrong to do so. have been told my dialogue’s too off-kilter a number of times, but that doesn’t mean you have. I stand by my point, though: this rule exists. I can’t avoid noticing it at play because I’m always searching for interesting turns of phrase and new glimmers of prose-work. Aside from a really good character, nothing cheers me as much as a well-written and original line does. Look for it yourself and I promise you the damn thing’s everywhere. Now, I’m no socialite, but I’ve met many people and every single one of them had a unique smattering of words they stuck to. I didn’t get to know most of them well enough to pick up on these verbal twitches, but I’m sure they were waiting for me if I did. In writing we don’t get this very much. Most authors (even very talented ones) pick a basic style of yittering and then branch out from it slightly. Even the wackiest characters don’t drift that far off-line. And as far as my favorite genres of fantasy and science fiction go, dialect just doesn’t exist. People don’t use different phrases in different parts of a made-up universe, aside from the occasional fantasy hick or space stoner. It doesn’t speak well of our talk-handling when only bad stereotypes have a unique voice.

Now, granted, most of the time it’s not that bad, but we have over a million words in the English language and it stands to reason all of them are used by somebody. That ‘somebody’ may be one in a million themselves, but if we’re talking genre fiction isn’t that the point? Now, if you write up a brilliant futuristic universe and then draft a good story about a hapless everyman in a forsaken colony, that’s excellent. This in mind, genre fiction in particular is meant to explore possibility. If we’re not allowed to give our characters certain words because they’re too goofy or high-brow, that  limits options to the point of banality. I do mean banality: “so lacking in originality as to be obvious or boring.” Not all dialogue needs to be wildly original, and in fact I’d say most shouldn’t be. I admit I need to work on restraining my banter-bending (for my characters; for myself, I unconditionally refuse) to a more level… level. I argue for this middle ground, though, with the understanding that having it makes all those peculiar peaks and valleys of speech stand out more clearly.

In order for a work to truly reflect reality, it needs to get the absurd parts bundled with the dull. Humans are social animals, and we socialize through words. You can have a character say a lot about himself as much by the words he chooses as their content. Of course, the vast majority of human communication is non-verbal, so really you should’ve skimped on reading this article to go brush up on body language.

Sorry friends, wasting time is what we do here.

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