Saturday, October 16, 2010

Literature, not Journalism


You've heard these kind of things before:

  • Make your diallogue realistic.
  • Create characters who are real.
  • Tell stories that are real.
I'm hear to tell you today that, to a large extent, that's hooey, if you're writing fiction.

You want to write in such a way that your dialogue comes across as realistic and that your characters come across realistic.  That's not actually possible by simply recording real life.  Anyone who has been involved in theater knows, the actors wear stage makeup and exaggerate their motions -- so that they come across as realistic.  When you look at the up close, they look silly.  When you're doing the acting, you can feel silly.  But when you're in the audience, these things are necessary for things to feel real.

It's the same in other media as well: in photography, in painting, in sculpture.  There are things you do make representations of people seem more realistic than a simple of transcription of reality would seem.

There are a lot of intellectual and psychological and even physical reasons for this, but I think it can become quickly obvious.

First: try transcribing some conversations, literally, word for word, sound for sound, pause for pause.  Notice how little sense people actually make.  If you don't have ready access to conversations, try typing down sportscasters' commentary.  People change sentences mid-way through.  They say, "um," a lot.  They have words they say that mean next to nothing.

Second: try truly describing, in detail, the interaction of a group of people.  Write about all their twitcheing and fidgeting, and staring off into space.  Include their coughs and sniffs and sneezes.  Describe the sound of their voices, their full appearance, the smell of their breath and their bodies.  Talk about how they rearrange their social space.

When you try to record real people behaving as they really do, it's not only daunting, but the product is annoying and difficult to relate to.

Obviously, we make choices.  We choose what to describe and what to talk about, based on what will communicate important character traits or story elements.  We convert people into symbols of people so that the readers can actually relate to them as they might to people.  An information dump merely forces them to engage with  a lot of facts they typical filter, ignore, or subconsciously manage.

Most of you are probably with me up to this point.

Here's where it gets challenging.

I can recall in painful detail countless fights I've gotten into over the years with editors, critique partners, fellow writing class students, and beta readers, in which the gist was this:

THEM: Blah blah blah.  This part doesn't work.

ME: You're so wrong it's almost laughable!  Of course it works.  That's how it works in real life.

Or like this:

THEM: Hoo haa huu.  I can't really follow this part here. It doesn't make sense.

ME: That's on you, not on me.  I can introduce to you two or three people for whom that is precisely how things went in their real lives.

The readers were telling me that something in my fiction didn't work.  I was defending myself and my writing by calling on real life.  Makes sense right?

Actually, I've decided that it doesn't make sense.  When you're writing, and readers don't get it, it doesn't matter how faithful you're being to reality.  We're not journalist -- we're authors.  We already make other choices, right?  We deal with people symbolically.

If there's something you want to get across in your story, don't just show it.  Show it in a way that, as written, your readers will understand it.

I used to hate impressionist paintings.  I still do, but for different reasons.  I used to think they were unrealistic.  Now I'm able to see that they are sometimes more realistic than so-called realistic paintings -- because they communicate something about the very real light and the color that I can understand and experience.

That's what we do in writing.  We create impressions of characters and actions so that our readers can understand and experience.  It's literature, not journalism.



  1. Agree totally.

    But how is it that some writers manage to capture totally believable dialogue and others have dialogue that feels like it's out of an episode of the 50s Superman tv series?

    Another thought: For a long time I searched diligently for transcripts of real conversations. At first, I wanted people in difficult situations -- bar fights, marital spats. As I realized it didn't exist, I would have settled for boring conversations about the weather. Still no luck. The closet I've come are some rather unhelpful academic studies of real speech-- but the conversations are never long enough. And the linguists are facinated by all the "um, um, um"s and whatnot, and the intonation and other stuff I don't actually care about.

    I'm still looking.

    Oh, and this made me laugh: "I used to hate impressionist paintings. I still do, but for different reasons. "

  2. @Tara - haha Thanks for noting my buried laugh-line. :) You might ask some sociological research institutes or departments if they have some redacted transcriptions you might see. When I did sociological research for a brief period we did a smidge of observe-and-transcribe.

    I have some general thoughts about dialogue, but I'll let others potentially respond to you first.

  3. "Not Journalists" is a very good reminder Nevets. Thanks.

  4. Nevets, I like the way you phrase it as "impressions of characters and actions".

    Tara, I'm not sure that I'm one of the ones that manages to avoid the 50s Superman dialogue. I personally want to try to have the dialogue sound "natural" but be totally unnatural avoiding the Um, Ahs, and silly speech. I've found that conversations with banter/conflict often improves the dialogue.

  5. yes; I'm often on the offensive of the "realistic dialogue" argument. What sound normal and natural in real life isn't what the reader is relating to. I totally agree with the "semblance of reality" comment. "reading" and "hearing" are two different modes of accepting input.

    Just my opinion, but I think think our brains process the info differently.

    A good lesson to keep in mind Nevets. I know I fall victim to the realistic "uhms" and "uhs" in my dialogue. So hard to weed out without angst.


  6. Exactly. People don't act/speak/move the right way for it to sound right on paper and in words.

  7. @Scott - Glad you found it helpful!

    @Aidan - I like the comparison, too, but it still grates at me because of my lifelong, "Impressionists are Rotten," banner-waving. lol

    @Donna - Exactly right, I think! Partly I think it's because in real interaction we're using multiple senses and multiple parts of the brain to process and manage what's going on. When we're reading, it's a much more focused brain activity and I think that makes it a completely different experience.

    @G'Eagle - It's so different. And when I've been writing for a somewhat extended period, I find myself critiquing my speech. I have a few verbal habits that would drive me insane if I were to reader my own words in a dialogue.

    All, because of all the conversation about dialogue specifically, I think I'll do another post soon about how I approach it.

  8. Godo points, Nevets. In my (past) life as a short story writer, my agent would often say "that wouldn't happen" and I would say "but it did!" and she would (wearily) explain yet again that truth really is stranger than fiction, and in fiction, it often simply won't work.

    Dialogue. I love dialogue (both practical and written!), but as you say, it can never be like genuine dialogue. Someone sent me their novel to read, and it was full of "oh, well. Good-bye then. See you on Tuesday" type dialogue, which of course is real but mind-numbingly booooooring.

  9. Yes, I think this is such a good lesson to learn. I think of it as a dampening for a lot of these situations. Things get dampened as we transfer from real life to writing, and we have to talk a little louder. But, we also need to point out some things that we might not have to point out in real life, and push back some things as well.

  10. This is a great post. We can't write about reality because everything is filtered through our brains, anyway. Our job as a writer is to choose those details that enhance our own vision of reality and serve only that specific purpose. How can you write reality when everyone has a different version of it?

  11. @Frances - That sounds like the arguments I used to get in with Editor-in-Chief Mom. Some were so legendary they sometimes pop up in conversation twenty years later.

    @Domey - Excellent point. Some things must be suppressed and others highlighted. Just like you use stage makeup to bring out the eyes and the mouth and conceal blemishes and distractions.

    @Elena - So true! Once you realize that at best you're writing your own version of how things really are, you should feel free to then craft the presentation of that reality into its most effective.

  12. I returned because I had so enjoyed your responses before mine Nevets. I saw your reply to Golden Eagle, and had to laugh. You know, I've done the very same - self edit before I speak. Probably not as often as I should, given my incredibly large, blunt mouth; but still, it is noticeable . .


  13. @Donna - Thanks for revisiting the thread. I do try to keep a conversational approach to my comments. It's more fun for all of us that way, and you never know what might come up.

    As for the other... lol I have one verbal twitch that I am constantly lecturing myself about, literally in phrases like, "You would never let a character get away with something that annoying. Why are you doing it yourself? Do I need to red-pen your mouth?"

  14. Good points.

    When I studied English, I did read a few transcripts of real dialogue. If I tried writing like that, anyone but hardcore linguists would throw my book away after the first five lines.


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