Six impossible things

Tin Ear

One of the worst criticisms that can be leveled at an author is “He has a tin ear for dialog.” In short form, it means the writer in question doesn’t do dialog well; in the longer version, it means the writer has no sense of the rhythms of speech, of variation in voice, or of the difference between narrative and dialog. Their characters sound stilted and formal, and not just when they’re supposed to be feeling awkward. In extreme cases, the writer’s dialog sounds exactly like their narrative; the only difference is that it has quotation marks around it.

Interestingly, one of the first things I noticed when I poked around looking at writing advice for dialog was that practically everyone spends a lot of time focusing on the part of the scene that’s not dialog – that is, on the speech tags and stage business. Those things are really important parts of the way you present your dialog, but you can do them to perfection and still have a tin ear for the speaking part.

Dialog is imitation speech. That means that above all else, it has to sound like something a person might actually say, which is why the one piece of advice you see over and over is this: if you’re having trouble with your dialog, read it out loud. It’s good advice, but if you have a truly tin ear, it may not be the place to start.

The other really common piece of advice is to listen to real people talk. Eavesdrop on the bus, in restaurants, at the mall, even take notes if you can get away with it. This sounds like reasonable advice, and it does seem to work for some people; the trouble is that dialog is an imitation of the way people speak, not a transcription of it. It’s a slightly-idealized, simplified model, not word-for-word and um-for-um dictation.

Listening to real people talking can help one get a notion of the differences in syntax and vocabulary and rhythm that make up the elusive thing called “the character’s voice.” I’ve never found eavesdropping to be terribly useful as a way into the writing part, though, because real conversations were never much help when it came to extracting that idealized, simplified model that I needed for my stories. Not even if I went through and cut the ums and ers and digressions and cleaned up half or more of the sentence fragments.

What did and does work, for me, was studying plays, screenplays, and movies. This ought to be obvious, but it wasn’t for me and it doesn’t seem to be for many, many other folks. Shakespeare is particularly useful, because you have not only the scripts, but also multiple films of many of them, which means you can study the dialog on the page and several different ways that different actors delivered the lines. Listening to radio plays, or movies where the picture is turned off so that all you get is the dialog, is also really informative.

Mostly, though, I read plays. All kinds of plays by all sorts of playwrights. I read them out loud with the play-reading group, out loud in my office, silently in my living room.

The thing about plays and screenplays is that the scenes are nearly all dialog. They’re also in a format that means the non-dialog parts – the speech tags and stage business – drop out of the way. A scriptwriter doesn’t have to worry about whether to use adjectives or where to put the speech tags, because the format is going to be “MARIA (angrily): That’s my hat.” So the writer isn’t as likely to be distracted by things that aren’t dialog.

The other thing about plays and movies is that they are already written in that idealized, somewhat simplified imitation-of-real-speech that you want for dialog in a story. This means that you don’t have to sort out which bits of vocabulary and syntax and so on are things that need to be cut (because they make things run on too long) and which bits are part of the specific character’s voice and therefore absolutely necessary.

Once you have a feel for the rhythm and syntax of speech in plays, then you start reading your own dialog out loud. If that doesn’t seem quite enough, try recording yourself saying it and then listen to it, or have someone else read it out loud while you listen. Start with just the dialog – no speech tags or stage business – because that’s the part that has to sound like speech. The tags and stage business and description that goes around the dialog is presentation, and it’s not the part people are talking about when they say someone has a tin ear for dialog. (It is the part they mean when they say someone has a tin ear for syntax or rhythm or narrative or just in general, but that’s not what I’m talking about here.)

The other thing that leads a lot of folks to say “he/she has a tin ear for dialog” is actually not so much about the dialog itself as it is about the characters who speak it.  I have quite a bit to say about it, so I’ll leave that part for next post.

  1. the trouble is that dialog is an imitation of the way people speak, not a transcription of it. It’s a slightly-idealized, simplified model

    Or a very-idealized model. I’ve done a little bit of transcription work (the worst was a study on communication between moms and barely-verbal toddlers), which convinced me that the last thing I want is for my dialog to sound like people really talk.

    Granted, my characters do sometimes talk in semi-colons. I inconsistently justify this with the fact that I do, too. 😉

  2. I noticed rhythm especially as a consequence of going formal. For quite a while, I avoided the use of contractions in my speaking. I still do not use them much, but I recognise the subtle difference between each of the pair “That can not be!” and “That can’t be!” and the pair “It is easy.” and “It’s easy.”

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