A Quip to the Death

For those about to quip, cheers!

For those about to quip, cheers!

I’ve heard it said, especially when I took my first steps in that creative writing class of mine a few years back, that dialogue can be quite difficult. I’ll admit, I hit a sour note from time to time myself, but over the years speech has… become more fluid and organic for me. My characters don’t read like talking heads on a script, but they flow and jag in a more realistic way, while still being stylized to my liking.

I’ve heard tell that if you want to feel your way through dialogue and conversation a good place to start is by thinking critically about the conversations you have or overhear in your everyday life. By that I don’t mean evaluate every thing that’s being said for it’s logical soundness, not at all, in fact you may want to do just the opposite. The way we skirt the truth and the heart as we talk to one another of the matter is important to notice, as are a myriad of other factors.

What I will say is this. As writer’s it’s common for us to want to show off just how damn clever we are. We show off in the way we set up our epic vistas at the top of a scene to imbue our drama with a strong sense of setting, and we can easily get in the habit of imbuing our character’s speech with our own fine witticisms.

This can be good and bad. If you happen to run with the moment and lend your character a grain of your own cleverness at an opportune moment, then your character’s dialogue might just pop and shine… these are the lines your readers will remember, and this is something you should shoot for. The problem lies in encumbering your work with your too-damn-precious-to-leave-out witty quips.

I read so many first stories and chapters were the writer’s treated their story and their dialogue like it’s a game. What I mean by that is this, when his or her characters engage in dialogue it can read literally like a game. Imagine Mortal Combat. Two players enter the field to have a conversation, and the word “FIGHT!” rings overhead. Two health bars appear, and a quip to the death ensues.

Player one sips her latte tentatively, and fires a warning shot.“I’ve heard it’s clever thing one... you ever hear anything like that before?” Player one watches the life bar flicker over Player two’s head and is delighted to see the faintest glimpse of red appear where at first there was only green.

Player two, unfazed by the initial assault, brushes the damage off casually and pretends to shield his eyes from the sunlight. “No, I’ve not heard anything like clever thing one before. Sound’s like a lie to me, (subtext now) and I’m going to return fire and make you play defense by insinuating clever thing two!” Sure, Player two was button mashing now, but he was getting results. He watched the green bar over his opponent’s head go yellow and savored the taste of victory as he sipped his diet A&W whilst trying to keep the urge to grin triumphantly in check.

This kind of dialogue may continue for a few pages, and at the end you will see a clear winner, and one of the players will exit stage defeated. So what’s the problem? For starters, real life conversations aren’t always sparring matches, and secondly, when they are, there is rarely a clear winner. In a real life conversation, Player one might not have known what she wanted when she approached Player two, in which case having them but heads over philosophy or the latest Facebook gossip would seem too aggressive and out of left field. Also, in a real life conversation where Player one knows exactly what she wants (and this is assuming we’re in her POV), we as reader’s are going to know what she wants, we’ll at least have an inkling of what motivates her to want it, and we are going to know her game plan. If Player two is her only or quickest means of getting what she wants, then she’s going to have some idea of what she has to do to get it from him. This is the trick I learned over the years. Beginning writers act as if they’re watching their characters on TV, and as such we both (the writer and the reader) go into the conversation blind. Things are said and we’re both watching it happen.

Dune, for me is the perfect counter point to this. In Dune every character, big or small, has an end they mean to achieve, and the writer lets us know exactly what their goals are going into the conversation. This differs from the TV approach in two ways. The TV approach has us going in blind, things will happen and we will experience it for the first time with the writer, the game-plan approach on the other hand gives the reader a chance to evaluate whether or not they trust the character to be successful (if the character’s an idiot or naive, the reader will expect setback). It also gives the reader a measure of security, because it tells the reader subtly that the writer has thought ahead. He not only knows exactly what’s going to happen in the dialogue, but he also knows exactly how this character is going to proceed, act, and react because they’ve thought ahead and they’re not just flying by the seat of their pants trying to prove how clever they are with every exchange.

Please, I’m learning myself so don’t take everything I have to say hear as proven fact. These are just observations I’ve made over the past few years, and in my mind they’ve helped me construct better, more thoughtful, and natural dialogues. I hope this has been helpful.

Thank you for reading, and cheers once again!




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