I’m working on turning a narrative nonfiction book I wrote into a movie screenplay and as I prepare to write I’ve been going through the manuscript again to identify scenes, set pieces, etc. As I’ve done this, I’ve noticed some truly cringe-worthy dialogue moments. Fortunately, not a lot, but enough to identify yet another Achilles heel in my writing.
First lesson learned is that it is really important to give any piece of writing time to cool before going back and editing. These mistakes aren’t mortal to the piece, but now that I’m coming back to it some years later, my perspective is clearer and I can see things that I could’ve improved. I don’t think a writer needs to wait years, it’s more that a writer needs to take enough time away to regain perspective.
The dialogue issue I noticed is subtle. I think. Basically, I want to convey a sense of the emotion of the moment through a character in conversation with another but failed do so in a way that does not create a sensation for me that resembles a skip in a record. The dialogue conveys—without being obvious or overly direct—what I wanted conveyed but as I read it back it feels as if the character isn’t truly speaking to the other person in the conversation.
The feeling is that the character is trying to speak to both the reader and the other character simultaneously, which no character in dialogue should do. Dialogue should be aimed at whomever the person is trying to influence or in conflict with. The reader should—if done properly—easily infer the emotional quality that the writer wants to communicate via the dialogue and contextual circumstances (micro-expressions, prior dialogue, etc.) without getting in the way of the expression.
To fix these instances, I would shorten and tighten the dialogue and do whatever else is required to ensure the dialogue reads true, that it is directed at the other character and not the reader.
After all, the reader and narrator are eavesdropping on the conversation. They are not part of it.
By way of example, consider to two photos below:
The first photo feels exactly like what it is, a posed stock photograph where the emotions are too transparent to be real.
The second looks and feels true because it is. And therefore, I find it far more fascinating and artful than the first photo.
To be fair, the second photo is of Willem and Elaine de Kooning from the 1950s, so there already is some interest. But that’s kind of the point. I want my writing to read true, not feel like the stock photo. So anytime I write dialogue—or anything, really—I have to hyper focus on ensuring the needle doesn’t skip for the reader and they feel like I’m creating a staged stock photo as opposed to a real moment that they are eavesdropping on.
To do that with dialogue, the characters must always speak directly to each other. Anything else is staging showing through.