Careless Talk, Real Talk, The Talk

I went to see Bridesmaids the other night, not because I had been waiting to see it with great anticipation (because I really hadn’t any), but because every reaction to the movie that I had heard or read about was positive, so that was what made me decide to watch it after all since there wasn’t much else I was interested in… although I will confess I was kinda tempted to go see the Judy Moody movie.

This is not a movie review. At least I hope not, because that’s not really my thing. I mean, I seriously only go to movies to be fully entertained – not challenged or angered or driven to action and definitely not to be scared. So to give a “review” of a movie of any sort seems a bit farcical since I am ridiculously happy with any movie that makes me go “aw” or laugh out loud more than a couple of times. I used to secretly wish that I was some sort of intelligent, critical movie watcher – one that seeks Indie films and documentaries – but I really don’t care anymore. Will I watch the gritty stuff and then like or appreciate it? Sure, but left to my own devices: I say bring on the fluff.

Here is what struck me about the movie that made it seem “off” to me. The dialogue. I’m a teacher, so naturally I want to give evidence to help exemplify my point. Below is a snippet of dialogue that I was able to find that actually does just this. The dialogue has so much potential, but it is missing something… part of which is effective execution by the actors – or maybe the characters? Not sure. Here is the text, followed by the video clip:

“You’re a total catch and any guy would be psyched to be your man.  You should just… make room for somebody who’s nice to you and…”

“You know what? He’s honest. He told me we are what we are and we’re just having fun and I like that—“

“No, he told you you need dental work. He’s an asshole.”

“I don’t need dental work.”


“You are right.”

“There is nothing wrong with my teeth.”

“You are so beautiful. Will you marry me?”

“Yessss.”

So, maybe you think that scene is/was hilarious. It should have been. But I think it was executed with just a little too much understatement. Was the conversation realistic? I believe so, but if it were me and my sister or some other good friend, we’re going to be more dramatic and giggly.

Good dialogue has become a beloved writing device in my fiction world. The evolution of a writer and dialogue is an interesting one. Commonly, this is what happens:

Age 12: Write a story that is all dialogue and no plot.

Age 16: Write a story that is all plot – too much plot, in fact. Dialogue is awkward.

Age 19: Write a story that is all elaborate description. Dialogue? What’s that? A writer shows and does not tell, and since dialogue is talking, that is telling, not showing.

Age 25+: OH, showing can mean character behavior and conversation, too! Cool. Now, how to balance…

Dialogue used to give me fits. Now it is my favorite thing to write. And, throwing modesty to the wind, I’ve gotten pretty good at it and count it as one of my strengths. Perhaps it is simply due to maturity. Or maybe it’s because I’m surrounded by family (both my side and husband’s side) where you can’t expect a conversation to move slowly. Quick wittedness (at minimum for following, even you are not contributing) is a must. Jokes are carried through every conversation thread throughout an entire get-together. Tangents become conversations of their own, but eventually make their way back to their originators. Give and take. Show off and show upsmanship.

Banter is real. At least it is in my world, so therefore it is real in my fictional world. And it is what really draws me to other fictional worlds… on the screen some of my favorite examples of authentic and entertaining banter include Castle, Friends, The West Wing, Sports Night, The Social Network (and yes, it is not lost on me that I have listed 3 titles in a row with the same head writer – Aaron Sorkin is a genius at banter and dialogue in general), 30 Rock, Arrested Development. In print, I’m rather fond of Douglas Adams, Sophie Kinsella, and Christopher Moore. There are probably a bunch of others, but I’m pretty bad at remembering that kind of stuff, so I will love it if you happen to comment on authors or books that you really see good banter so I can say “oh yeah, that one too!”

Obviously dialogue is about more than banter and in the end, I appreciate dialogue that is authentic. Sure, in real life, people may not have as varied a vocabulary in their conversation with their friend and may say “I know” a whole bunch whereas in fiction we will change it up… “I know”, “I’m sure”, “I’m aware” etc. But, on the whole, I want to feel like I can really hear these characters talking, whether or not it is a serious or casual conversation. Young adult literature boasts some great examples of this because it doesn’t have to sound grown up. Teen chat does not involve fancy vocabulary or perfect sentence structure. Neither does adult conversation, but our expectation seems to be higher in an adult novel for this elevated dialogue.

When I am writing, I imagine I am sitting right next to my characters as they’re talking. As I eavesdrop on them (although, surely they know I’m listening in, so it’s not eavesdropping then, is it?), I listen for that ring of authenticity. Could I jump in on their conversation and talk with them? If so, I feel that I’m on the right track.

Finally, I appreciate dialogue that is present. Meaning, just the mere addition of conversations in a story rate it higher for me. Because what a character says and how she says it can give me a lot of insight into her personality, her beliefs, her motives – even if the conversation is imaginary. Dialogue breaks things up, makes a story real. But, you know, I’m probably forgetting about a whole slough of great novels that have little to no dialogue, thus invalidating my “rates higher” statement. I’m okay with that. Remind me of those novels. Plus, as a writer and/or a reader, what does dialogue mean to you?

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6 Responses to Careless Talk, Real Talk, The Talk

  1. Jen says:

    I wasn’t going to comment…but this topic interested me. I realized as I was reading that I really don’t pay too much attention to dialogue. Which isn’t to say it’s not important to me, because it is. I love the way people use words, especially when they use them cleverly (which is one of the reasons I find myself constantly standing up for rappers- they’re amazing at putting words together in really thoughtful and novel ways). But I digress. I was trying to think of stories that I remember using dialogue really well…or those that were wonderful without really using it at all. I found that I couldn’t think of anything, even though I read all the time. What I’ve decided is that dialogue is one of those “things” that can make a novel as a whole work. It’s why something great as great. I would say that there are novels where dialogue isn’t really necessary. I’m reading Devil in the White City now, which is amazing…but almost dialogue free. For the story and the way the author is telling it, it works. It’s a true story, but written in novel form. I think a lot of dialogue would actually take away from the authenticity in this case, because it would be something invented in the midst of a story that is real. But that’s rare. While I struggle to think of examples where the dialogue is the stand-out great element, I can think of several where the dialogue was the element that made the story tedious for me. Almost worse than stilted dialogue, is when it’s too much- too snappy, too clever, too planned. Like you said, you want to feel like an eavesdropper, but in those cases, you feel like someone reading a script. Okay, well, I pretty much wrote a novel here, and I have a plane to catch, so, until next time…

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    • ProfeJMarie (Janet) says:

      You mention a good example about a narrative memoir. Those might not use much dialogue at all, and can obviously be quite captivating. In fact, in a memoir, it is an interesting concept to insert dialogue… because if a memoir is non-fiction, then are the recorded conversations fact or fiction? I’m not really questioning this kind of thing to be critical, it’s just a thought that crossed my mind. I think of the documentary “re-enactments” and those kind of drive me crazy, but most of the time when I’ve seen dialogue in narrative memoirs, it does not make me critical.

      At any rate – I think I catch your point that truly great fiction does not necessarily draw attention to any particular device… it has what it needs in the right balance.

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  2. I watched that movie, and I remember laughing at that scene, but also feeling liking the way they’d set up the friendship between KWiig and MRudolph. (I can’t remember their character names, which I guess is one indication that this movie was a like-not love). It was sort of chill and a bawdy (?) and (in my opinion) a very deliberate way of separating them from SNL characters they have.

    As far as writing dialogue, I totally agree. In my experience, funnily enough, my first stories were ALL dialogue, and I was always trying to squeeze everything in through the words people were saying. Something like…

    “Once you shut the door, come on over and have a seat next to me.”

    “Okay, I will, but first, why do you have a gun pointed at me?”

    …that sort of thing, where the dialogue carried the whole story. In other words, terrible, haha.

    And I agree with Jen that it’s awful when a writer has too much to prove in his/her dialogue. I’ve never thought to analyze it past how many times I roll my eyes 🙂

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    • ProfeJMarie (Janet) says:

      I had no idea that the actors were from SNL! Boy am I out of the loop.
      Can I just say that I love your example of trying to do it all in dialogue? So funny.

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  3. mfluder14 says:

    So, I meant to comment when you first posted, but I got distracted. Surprise, surprise.

    Anyway, I was really interested in your take on this scene. I can’t comment so much on writing dialogue because I don’t think I have actually ever written any, but I’m wondering if the reason the scene felt a little “off” to you was because that scene wasn’t actually written and then acted. I am almost positive that part of the movie (and much of the rest of it) was improv. It was KWigg and MRudolph making things up as they went along. I wonder how it would have been different if it was actually written out dialogue. I also wonder if any of the other takes they took were much more giggly, etc. I love your observations! 🙂

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    • ProfeJMarie (Janet) says:

      You think it was unscripted? Because that is really interesting if I look at it that way. In fact, it is really interesting information in general to consider that movie as mostly improv… and that gives me a whole lot more of why I probably didn’t think the whole thing gelled or caught with me. I love improv – but a whole movie of it is hard to pull off without losing the integrity of a story, it seems to me.

      At any rate, even looking at this scene – good improv would have made the scene more authentic? And therefore better? Hmm. Again, the intention behind the scene and the dialogue was strong, but that is where I go back to the less than effective execution – improvised or not.

      Maybe I just have poor taste in comedies. Haha! 🙂

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