December 5, 2010

Why is dialogue different from other kinds of writing?

Writing dialogue that sounds authentic and appropriate is a skill. At this point, I have no idea if I have that skill but I suspect I do. I don't struggle over dialogue; it just happens.

What prompted this post is that I noticed something this morning: when I edit, I leave the dialogue alone. This is totally weird because I really edit: I alter the wording often and joyfully. I like improving things. But the dialogue usually seems good to me and I leave it as is.

This alone indicates that it's a different type of writing. After all, it survives my stringent editing intact while nothing else does. I am a big alterer of words. I hack at them until I'm satisfied and I am one tough customer to please.

Yet the dialogue stays! I might move a "she said" from before a quote to after, but the dialogue itself always seem easy and sure so it survives the editing process. It's very odd. I wonder if there is less interference from my conscious mind when I write dialogue than when I'm describing something or setting up a scene. In the latter situations, I see a sort of word smorgasbord before my eyes as I write, and I choose among the selections. (I know: Phil does it, not me. But you know what I mean.)

When I write dialogue, it's different. There aren't all these competing versions in my mind, all angling for supremacy as if engaged in an evolutionary process. Dialogue simply occurs to me and I write it down. It's talking, and I know about talking.

On the other hand, I hear some writers say that they find dialogue difficult to write -- and the dreamers, those who plan to write a novel some day but never do, often feel this way before they even sit down to play their hand. They are convinced they won't be able to do it. In fact, I suspect this fear is one of the things that puts them off writing and leaves their idea in the "idea stage". Folks in this group should just do it. It may not be as hard as you think, guys. Give it a shot.

But as for those who have tried dialogue and failed, or are dissatisfied with their product, I wonder why. I'd love to hear from writers in this camp to learn about their experiences.

Please understand that I don't mean to diminish anyone's problems in this (or any other) area of writing. I imagine most writers find certain types of writing simpler than others. And as for me, who knows? Maybe my dialogue sucks. My books are not out to many readers yet so perhaps I have extreme dialogue problems that I don't know about. Still, I do wonder: why do I leave the dialogue alone when I edit? How is it different from other writing? I don't know the answer to this question but I find it interesting.

Lest I seem like someone who finds everything about writing easy, I offer this. One thing that gave me a hard time in my second sci-fi book was having a main character who is a song writer. Naturally, this meant he'd sing songs now and then -- and I would have to write the lyrics. This was so uncomfortable for me. Coming up with lyrics that didn't sound ridiculous was a tall order. In the end, I did it but I still wonder whether if the songs (two of them) sound silly. This is a distinct possibility. 

Okay, I'm rambling. And I still don't know what the difference is between writing typical prose and writing dialogue. Tell me about you and dialogue. Did you ever try it? How did it go?

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