META: The Problem with Dialogue

Tom Russell milos_parker at
Wed Aug 6 15:39:12 PDT 2008

On Aug 6, 3:52 pm, chrisoute... at wrote:
> This is a newbie post, but I'm just going to jump right in.
> One of the big challenges is finding a way for the characters to talk
> like themselves and not like the author -- I think films are a good
> way to pick it up.  Watching old Humphrey Bogart movies, you'll hear
> him use the most bizarre decades-old slang as though it was the most
> natural thing in the world.  Watch a subtitled foreign film and you'll
> see stilted, artificial dialogue as the translator tries to bend the
> rhythms of a different language to seem familiar.

Well, it depends on the translation, but I do see your general
point. :-)

With a film, each performer can bring meaning to dialogue through tone
of voice, volume, facial expressions, body language, and the context
in which it appears in a given scene.  You could give five different
actors the same line of dialogue, and each one's going to turn in a
different performance with different shades of meaning.

(Check out one of the first season episodes of THE WIRE, in which the
word "fuck" is said at least forty or fifty times in one scene; it's
the only word spoken in that scene, and it means something different
every time.)

You don't have that with prose; the words remain the same, and other
than resorting to bad punctuation (!!!?) and adverbs (he said
dismissively) there's no way to get those myriads of feelings across.
A lot of writers try to solve this problem by giving their characters
different verbal tics, and while some very great writers have done
great things with that-- Dickens and Trollope, for example-- most of
the time it feels like characterization is being replaced by a mass of
tics that never really come together.  Those times that it does work,
it works with "flat" characters or "types"-- the very sort of
characters that Dickens and Trollope used in many cases.  Those
characters who were more well-rounded-- for example, that dashing
young Phineas Finn-- are less likely to have a "distinct" voice all
their own.  It what he has to say that's important, and it's the
tensions within him-- the dynanism that prevents him from being
defined as "this" or "that" but rather has him constantly shifting
between them-- that make him interesting.  Once he was "defined" and
settled, his story became less interesting and effectively ended.

More important, I think, than having characters who express themselves
in a different style from one another are characters who have
different things to express; give five people the same situation or
stimuli and get five different reactions, and, of course, everyone's
going to have different reactions to those reactions.  That's the
secret, I think, of strong ensemble work.


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