Monday, December 16, 2013

The Moment is More Important than the Plot

“Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into our side, Chief. We was comin' back from the island of Tinian to Leyte... just delivered the bomb. The Hiroshima bomb. Eleven hundred men went into the water. Vessel went down in twelve minutes. Didn't see the first shark for about a half an hour.” —Robert Shaw, Jaws.
Dialogue is something many writers seem to struggle with, published and otherwise. I'm not sure, but I think a big reason for this is because they are caught up in trying to get to the story.

Story in this sense really means the plot. When a writer is trying to move events along from plot point to plot point, however exciting those moments may seem, the dialogue suffers, characters suffers, story suffers. You end up rushing through moments you ought to let linger. You cut short exchanges you ought to let play out more naturally. The word play is crucial here. You must allow yourself to play. That's when you make the most exciting discoveries in your writing, when you're carrying on without a fixed point as your goal and instead dance along the page.

There is an arrogance to writing that all writers deal with. We assume we know what we're doing. We get it in our heads that once we figure out a story, that settles it, and all that remains is to write the thing. We know where we're going and all we have to do is to draw a straight line from here to there. This is an uncompromising lie. You are not embarking upon the composition of a menu. This is not a bullet pointed itinerary you are writing, it's a story. Stories meander. They sway and curve and crash, and we don't know for sure which one they'll do next. That is what makes them exciting. Don't get bogged down in moving things along.

Write a while. Look around. What interests you? What little, idiosyncratic detail would pass by unnoticed by anyone else? Write about it.

Lend this sensibility to your characters. Let them talk to each other. Let them speak for themselves. We want to get to know them. Never mind where the conversation is going. It's right now we're all interested in. The moment is more important than the plot. Don't force words into your characters mouths for your convenience. If anything rings untrue to a character's emotional ark, strike it out. I've written about this before in the context of honesty. Know you can always cut out whatever doesn't inspire.

Need models to set your stock by? Allow your favorite movies and series to furnish them. Listen for when you are the most intrigued. When you are reading, note when the dialogue pulls you into the story. Reflect on how your friends talk to one another. Steal conversations from the cafe. Pay attention. Listen

Some of my recommendations for great dialogue include anything by Steven Brust, the Hawkeye comics by Matt Fraction, and The Owl Service by Alan Garner. Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlow stories are also competent, and good examples of how sometimes people say things that don’t make a lot of sense but you don’t always have a good chance to ask them to clarify, or it just isn’t worth it.

What’s some of the best dialogue you’ve come across in your reading or otherwise?

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