November 15, 2009

WRITING ADVICE: Jack McDevitt 6: Use Wooden Dialogue

(The Twelve Blunders are used with permission of Jack McDevitt, from his webpage:

This is one thing in my writing for which I have been praised. In the many times my work has been rejected, I have half as many compliments directed at my dialogue.

Maybe it’s because of an exercise I do when I teach a summer school class for elementary through high schoolers called, Writer To Get Published. When we reach the day for dealing with dialogue, I send the students into the hallways and classrooms to eavesdrop on what people are saying – AND TO WRITE IT DOWN.

Fifteen minutes later, we come back to the classroom to talk about what people REALLY say and what authors REALLY right. For my students, I call it “realistic fake conversation”, but I like McDevitt’s phrasing better: “the illusion of living conversation”. He points out earlier in the article: “Real people interrupt one another constantly, deliver irrelevancies, squint, change the subject, shake their heads, often fail to use complete sentences, and sometimes lose their train of thought altogether.”

While this is entirely true, some authors either don't notice it in their own writing or ignroe the injunction against it. The field of speculative fiction is especially prone to writing stilted dialogue. It's even got it's own name: purple prose.

In SF, we like to think that we are beyond the purple prose of the Golden Age of SF where characters uttered sentences like “As you know, Captain, the space warping technology we possess is very different than the type possessed by the invading aliens because we base our technology on the original theories of Hawking where the invading aliens base theirs on the theories of their equivalent of Einstein, which, as you know…” I tried to do a search on collected examples of SF writers who used an obvious info-dump in a recent book. No one seems to be willing to collect them, perhaps because they don’t want to embarrass the genre. After a quick glance at the next book in my “SF TO READ” pile, I find the second sentence in Wolf and Myers’ SPACE VULTURE. It comes very close to what McDevitt warns against: “These mushrooms after being processed and formed into pills, let users eat all they wanted without gaining weight.”

While that snippet isn’t dialogue, the following bit three pages later alleges to be: “ ‘Interplanetary Statute 462, paragraph 93, subparagraph 4 makes what you did illegal. As to the ethics…’” Just that brief skim has done nothing to entice me to read the book. I know that if a character I enjoyed in a novel abruptly gave an infodump at some point, I might be willing to overlook it once -- but not any more than that. Better to leave the infodumping to Wikipedia.

The best way to check for such ridiculous mistakes in dialogue is to read it out loud. I encourage my students to do it, and I usually do it myself. McDevitt recommends it and asks that you examine it as you read: “How does it sound? If it’s awkward, long-winded, pompous, or formal, get rid of it. One of the pro writer’s most valuable attributes is a willingness to heave material over the side.”

If you happen to have a sample of wooden dialogue or purple prose from a recent speculative fiction novel written by a famous person, share it here. Just for the fun of it, the next time I read a Jack McDevitt novel, I’m going to keep a pen handy to see if he’s followed his own advice. I’ll certainly keep the pen handy for to use on my own novel!

1 comment:

William said...

Yes, I think it is crucial to read your dialog aloud--even better (and more painful) have other people read it aloud. Every time someone stumbles--or raises eyebrows--or gives a wrinkled-forehead look of puzzlement--you know you're not connecting. Critique groups are useful for this--if only one person doesn't get it, maybe it's just them. If four or five out of six say "Say what?" it's probably time to start jettisoning words, and maybe even whole paragraphs and chapters.