Talk the Talk

I encountered something interesting while writing the first Deep Sounding, and it’s now rearing it’s ugly little head at me once more, so I figured it might make a good blog post.

Here’s the problem:

My dialogue is too good for a fantasy book.

That’s a purposely-loaded statement, so let me explain…

I’m good at writing dialogue.  Not to toot my own horn, but it’s always been one of my strong suits.  Even some of my oldest and most terrible pieces of writing have snippets of dialogue that are halfway decent.  Imagine my surprise, then, when early drafts of Deep Sounding went out and one piece of feedback came back consistently: the dialogue was no good.

What the hell, man?

See, in writing prose dialogue, I’ve always drawn stylistically (if not in terms of content) from a small handful of sources whose dialogue I thought was exceedingly good.

There’s the minimalist, no-nonsense school of guys like Hemingway or Cormac McCarthy.

He said, “I’m going home.”

She said, “Okay.  Goodbye.”

“Goodbye.”

“I’ll see you tomorrow.”

He left.

It gives everything this clipped, business-like feel which amplifies the effect of all dialogue.  Good dialogue becomes great and great dialogue feels downright masterful, because all interstitial action is left to the reader’s imagination.  McCarthy doesn’t care to tell us how the stern cowboy scowls while speaking, which means we imagine it for ourselves — which means it comes across much better than it would have if we had read it.

Then there’s the contemporary, self-interrupty style of guys like Don DeLillo or Samuel R. Delaney.

“Thing is,” said John, “the thing is, Dave, you and me–“

“You got a problem?” Dave asked, and cracked his knuckles.

“That’s the thing.”

“You got a problem?”

“I don’t.” said John.  “But you and me,” lifting his finger, “gotta talk.”  He poked Dave in the chest.

The emphasis with this style is on flow and presence.  Interstitial text becomes a way to break up dialogue.  ‘said John’ in that first line, for example, serves to insert a pause into the dialogue without having to explicitly write something lame and intrusive like ‘he paused for a moment’.  Interrupted dialogue and repetition of key phrases lets the writer control the rhythm and pacing of the words.  Everything feels very “in the moment”.  Every exchange tumbles out in one breath.  The prose here isn’t written in the present-tense — but doesn’t it feel like it might as well be?

Of course it’s not realistic.  Nobody talks this way.  Some people HATE Don DeLillo’s dialogue; they question whether he’s ever spoken to another human being in his life, and accuse his characters of sounding like creatures from another planet.  What they miss is that DeLillo and Delaney and guys like them are no dummies.  They write this way on purpose.  (Believe me, you don’t write this way by accident!)  Guys who write dialogue like this know how to write bland boilerplate stuff, too; they just choose not to, because that style doesn’t afford them the fine control over rhythm and flow that they require.  Nor does it for me.

The last of my inspirations is the straight-up transcriptionist style of guys like Elmore Leonard.

The witness sat forward in his chair.  He spoke quietly.  “She came at me, you know, came at me with the knife.  I hit her.  I mean, you know, I had to hit her, just to defend myself!  She was so — you know, she was crazy.  She was always crazy like that.  Always trying to start a fight.  I never meant to hurt her.”

This one’s fun because it’s a 1:1 approximation of real-world speech; it’s everything but the ums and ers.  As someone with some schooling in court reporting, this is a style I can do in my sleep.

My dialogue, then, reads like an amalgamation of these few influences.  But writing Deep Sounding, I realized that something about my normal approach just wasn’t working, when transposed onto a fantasy context.  I had refused, when I began writing, to default to the normal fantasy go-to style: all this “my lord” and “thee and thou” and other faux-antiquated nonsense meant to give the dialogue an air of unearned legitimacy.  And yet, here my dialogue was, feeling awkward and anachronistic, despite the fact that the world of Deep Sounding is a completely fictional one, where I get to say what is and isn’t period-appropriate!

Dialogue in a fantasy book, I’ve realized, can flow however you want it.  Stylistically, you can do what you please.  Compare Martin to Tolkien to Salvatore to Pratchett — you’ve got a whole spectrum of styles there, and all of them work.  (Well, okay, Tolkien doesn’t always work, but he’s aping Nordic sagas, so give the guy a break.)

But the key factor is flavor.

No matter the tone or setting of a fantasy book, the flavor has to have just a trace of artifice to it.  In order for the dialogue to feel real, it has to feel a little fake.  This seems infuriatingly paradoxical, but it’s true: in a fantasy setting, realistic, contemporary dialogue breaks the illusion, even in a world where you get to define what “contemporary” means.

The solution, for me, was to find a flavor that matched my rhythmic and stylistic needs without taking a sledgehammer to the sense of atmosphere.  For Deep Sounding, I settled on something close to an American Midwestern dialect.  Now, that’s not to say everyone in Deep Sounding speaks like Marge Gunderson, or even that I think the dialogue in Deep Sounding accurately reflects speech in the American Midwest.  But it was a useful shorthand, and I came up with a pocket rule: if I couldn’t imagine a line of dialogue coming out of the mouth of a Kansas City steelworker in 1935, I rewrote the line until I could.

The end result (readily apparent in reviews for the book) was dialogue which flowed better, sounded better, and even allowed me to sneak in jokes a little easier.

Speech in the world of Deep Sounding is evolving even as I write it.  New phrases are jumping out all the time.  Swear words, too — dwarfs have a whole tool-shed full of esoteric profanity which I’m just now beginning to unpack.  Old dwarfs speak different than young dwarfs.  Some dwarfs speak like Midwestern steelworkers, while others speak like Southern politicians.  The important thing is, it’s got a consistent tone and flavor, and the dialogue doesn’t jump off the page going, “LOOK AT ME!  I’M STRONG CONTEMPORARY DIALOGUE!  PAY ATTENTION TO HOW LITERARY I AM!  I WAS INSPIRED BY DON DELILLO!”

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