I worked with a really great editor at Wag’s Revue several years ago while prepping my short story, “Mourning Jimmy Crooks,” for publication there. We had a lengthy discussion about dialog in which he told me that sometimes it is useful to write dialog as if the parties to the conversation are not talking to one another. In other words, no one is responding to what the others are saying. He seemed to think that this was a good way to end up with realistic dialog, even if the process seemed somewhat counter-intuitive.
At first I thought this quite odd. Logical flow, give and take, is the whole point of dialog after all, and the best practitioners of written dialog in my experience, Elmore Leonard in virtually everything he wrote and George V. Higgins in The Friends of Eddie Coyle, didn’t write like that. Then I got to thinking about many actual conversations I have had in my 65 years on the planet. Yeah, I know. You too, right?
What the editor had suggested is in fact an excellent way to portray realism. It is the way people actually talk to one another. In any event, it is the way that people talk to me. I’ve always thought of it as a problem, but maybe, just maybe, it’s not my problem alone.
One of the reasons I took up writing was so that I would be able to express a complete thought before someone hijacked the exchange to take it in a different direction. When I talk, hardly anyone pays any attention to what I have to say. What they do instead, while I am weaving conversational brilliance all around them, is to work out what they want to say next. When they have got it firmly in their minds, they just jump in wherever I may be to tell me what they think about whatever it is that they just thought. I don’t really need to be there except for people to be able to say things later like, “I had a really great talk with Jonah the other day. He seems really smart . . . and nice too. Don’t remember what he said, but I told him . . .”
Here is an example of what I’m talking about from a recent dinner party at our house. Feel free to jump in anytime.
Me: I watched Gotham on TV the other night. I thought it was pretty good, but it’s been getting panned all over the Web.
Wife: There sure are a lot of shows based on comic books lately.
Adult Son’s GF: My favorite is Iron Man. I just love Robert Downey, Jr.
Granddaughter: I’m getting a new tattoo to fill in this empty space on my side. I’m thinking Daenerys Targaryen from Game of Thrones because, you know, she’s got dragons! No, wait . . . dragons. That’s it. I’m gonna get a dragon. I’ll be that other girl with the dragon tattoo.
Sister1: I found these shoes on sale at Steinmart last week. Aren’t they cute?
Granddaughter: Maybe a direwolf would be better than a dragon. I don’t know. It’s so hard to decide. The girl with the direwolf tattoo?
Wife: This mango key lime pie is wonderful, isn’t it?
Adult Son: Speaking of Iron Man, can you all get the ESPN coverage of the Honolulu Triathalon?
Adult Son’s GF: I’m trying to find a good recipe for flan.
Bean (my greyhound): Rrr. Rrrr. Mmmh? [translation—is it time to feed the dog yet?]
Me: I just don’t think Gotham is that bad. I think it’s the best Batman derivative . . .
Brother: I think everyone’s interested in comic book style entertainment because Obama has screwed the country up so bad it’s gonna take a modern day superhero to fix things. People just wanna get back to good old fashioned good versus evil because, you know, Obama is evil and we need to believe there’s some good out there.
Bean: Rrr. Rrrr. Wooo. [Some dinner would be good.]
Sister2: Did you all see where somebody hacked naked pictures of Jennifer Lawrence off of the iCloud? What a nightmare for that poor girl. She had to tell her dad about it and everything.
Sister1: She’s so cute. I wonder where she gets her shoes.
Me: . . . that ever made it onto TV. Sure, it’s not . . .
Brother: I blame Obama for that too.
Adult Son: Wait . . . what?
Bean: Rrr. Rrrr. Argh? [Hey, did you guys know it’s Talk Like a Pirate Day?