the tamago report

Eggs benedictated

Tag: dialogue

What do press releases and short stories have in common?

by MDY

Writing one thing can help with another. I, for example, have written many press releases as part of my day-job. Press releases are like Sudoku: you have to use the scant information you have to fill in the blanks of a template that is, more or less, always the same. I don’t do Sudoku because 81 squares is too many for my brain, but I do Kenken (which is like Sudoku but with mental arithmetic) and I feel the same spark of euphoria when I finish one as I do when I finish a press release.

Press releases always contain one or two quotations from important people who are too busy to actually say anything about the subject of the press release, so instead you have to make up what they would say if they had the time to say something. You often end up writing something like this:

“The launch of the new T1000 model has the potential to revolutionise the nascent autonomous cybernetics industry, propelling us towards a future where true collaboration between humans and machines is possible,” said John Connor.

Note that these are quotations, not actual dialogue. I suck at dialogue, so I try to avoid it as much as possible. But that can be useful when you’re writing short (or long) fiction and want to convey a character’s speaking voice without getting them mired in a gluey exchange of sympathies. I’ve always liked having my characters talking against or over each other, rather than to, perhaps because it reflects my own experience of conversations (where people are great at talking but not so much at listening or responding). I’ve found that the way important people are quoted in press releases is actually very effective when I use it for ordinary people in my short stories.

For example, there is nothing dialogue-y about this:

“When I was in primary school, we had scripture classes every Wednesday morning,” I said instead. “I wasn’t sure where to go so they put me in the Catholic class, which I thought was pretty decent luck since we got to have bread and grape juice every session. But one day Mom and Dad notice I’m closing my eyes and putting my hands together before dinner and when they figure it out, they fly into a rage like you’ve never seen. Mom drives into school the next day and I can hear her yelling at my teacher for a whole half hour while I wait outside, about how Dad is thinking of suing the school and do you people think about the consequences to the home environment or even think at all?” 

(from “Afterlife”)

But it’s a lot more fitting (when you read the story) than if the protagonist and Maria went into a 20-line piece of dialogue where they exchanged whole expository chunks about their feelings. Does anyone really do that any more (except via Facebook)?

In short, even “boring” writing like press releases can impart lessons and cool technical tricks which you can re-purpose elsewhere.

Writing from experience

by MDY

They say write what you know. When I first started with short stories, I used to structure them around swathes of luxurious dialogue in which my characters would ponder the quandaries of war, God, and double dates. These weren’t very good, because I didn’t actually know how to talk a lot. So I moved on to writing stories where the characters wouldn’t speak at all, and those were better. Then I began writing in the first person because I do a lot of thinking, but without any increase in dialogue because I still don’t like talking. The only person I feel truly comfortable talking to is myself. Blogs are surprisingly well-suited for interior monologue.

They say write what you don’t know. When I was in high school, all my protagonists were intellectual-leaning teenage boys who were sweet on unattainably beautiful women and would often partake in swathes of luxurious dialogue about war, God, and double dates. But that was boring, so I moved on to cybernetic assassins, telepathic trees, and little girls who wanted to be chefs. For a long time all my protagonists were male, until I realised my understanding of men was about as poor as that of (invariably unattainably beautiful) women. So I started writing about animals. Sometimes knowing is half the battle, but it may not be the winning side.

I say write what you want to know. My illustrator wants to know more about learning to teach, and teaching to learn. One of my friends writes about God, and fashion, because she wants to understand both better (though her allegiances, like mine, fall squarely on one side). I write about writing. Words are thoughts, made close-to-real. They give us something to hold onto, and something to build from. You don’t have to know what you write, but it helps knowing what you’re writing for.

Writing speech

by MDY

It’s like a fingerprint in space. Odd syntactical constructions, catch-phrases, tending to “like” rather than “you know” – they never just happen once. Of course it can be controlled – hence the idea of formal register – but even then certain heuristic traces will remain. Even if you give two people the exact same words, the sounds will be different, and not just when comparing between Singaporeans and South Africans. It’s relatively easy to capture the uniqueness of diction, but tone and inflection are not as acquiescent.

There is no truly lossless format. What has said cannot be retracted, but will start to change shape if we pay it enough attention. It sloughs off its marginalia, recomposes itself into something more refined and polished but with the same meaning – or with a shift so slight that we might never notice. When you try to capture it with paper, it behaves like a cat in a box. If I omit a cough while transcribing from tape, does it still sound like a falling tree? Too many “um”s can make the erudite look dense; when caught in writing, a trifecta of “well”, “you know” and “I mean”  spells obfuscation. There’s nothing self-explanatory about he said/she said.

My approach is being true to one another. Just like with cats in boxes, the relativity of a goal doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. The hardest part is when your fingerprints are coming loose from too much backspacing, and all you want to do is a vague sketch instead of careful tracing. But like truth, karma is chameleonic: misquote someone, and you’ll never know what fate your words will meet in a dark study or when. The main thing is remembering that neither sound nor its absence ever signifies nothing.

Only after many hours of close listening will you realise how dull most people sound. Then you have two choices: change the station, or keep listening. When doing the first, remember both the best and worst fictive dialogue sounds exactly the opposite to how real people do. Only do the second if  it begins to sound like song.