Upon Reading Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott: Writing – Dialogue

“…nothing can break the mood of a piece of writing like bad dialogue.” ~p. 64

“The problem is that the writer simply put it down word by word; read out loud, it has no flow, no sense of the character’s rhythm that in real life would run through the words.” ~p. 65

“First of all, sound your words.” ~p. 65

I’m actually quite confused reading this part. I mean, how do you actually rate a dialogue? How can you tell if a dialogue is good or bad, really?

Sometimes I think a dialogue is bad, or maybe it’s more like: I think it’s bad because I can barely understand a word… but that dialogue are actually written in a classic best-seller! So since the book is such a high-respected classic, perhaps I’m the one who’s dumb and stupid.

But I always prefer a dialogue where I can understand and imagine the way the character would sound. For example, I love Sophie Kinsella’s Can You Keep A Secret? despite my opinion that it’s a cheesy and predictable romance. But the humor in each dialogue really entertain me (read here if you haven’t read the review).

When I first  started reading the Border Trilogy by Amanda Scott, I almost gave up and threw the book away because the language used in the book is really unusual to me and I can barely understand a word (what the hell ‘sithee’ and ‘prithee’ mean anyway?). But then I tried to imagine someone with a thick British accent (because I don’t even know how Scottish accent should sound like and I’ve never heard of one before), and then it became clearer to me. I would usually imagine a British, or Irish actor saying that same dialogue–I would usually imagine Gerard Butler. I don’t know whether he’s British or Irish or what, but I know for sure he doesn’t sound like an American. Or I would imagine the women in the book sound like… hmmm, Keira Knightley. Or Keeley Hawes. Or Claire Foy. Well, you get what I mean. The point is, the moment I am able to imagine how a character would sound, I get the meaning.

But apparently this method is not always applicable to every books I read.

For example, I tried to read Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit some time ago. It’s a classic, I know, and everybody who saw me reading that would stare at me in surprised and said, “You read that? But, that’s a classic! Wow, I’m impressed!”

Hold that thought, fellas!

So I explained to them that the only reason I read that book is because I have watched the TV series. And why did I watch the TV series? Well, frankly speaking (blushing), the first reason I watched that is because (blushing again) Matthew MacFadyen is playing. Sorry, I’m a huge fan of MacFadyen’s Mr. Darcy. But of course, as I followed episode by episode, I began to like the story and I was later in awe with Andy Serkis’ Rigaud/Blandois. Especially after I found out that Andy Serkis is the guy who played as Smeagol/Gollum in The Lord of The Rings Trilogy. Hats off to thee, Andy Serkis!

But again, the bottom line is, I told them that I tricked them into thinking that I’m so expert to be able to read Dickens’ Little Dorrit. The truth is, the only reason I could understand the story is because I’ve watched the TV series, so I already knew the story beforehand.

Then toward the end of the book, I became very impatient as I couldn’t wait to read the next book in my list (The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald) so I began to simply skim the book only to spot the differences between the TV series and the book and then scan for those differences.

The thing is, I could barely understand the narration in the book. I don’t know whether it’s actually classified as a good narration or a bad one (who am I to judge anyway?), but I can barely understand a word. Well, I could, actually, if I’m willing to reread the lines for two to four times and carve each word into my heart. Yes, I would, but God it tires me so. And later it began to irk me so much.

Yet the book was considered one of the great classics of all time, so I suppose it’s not the book that has an awful quality, isn’t it? I guess it’s me. Yes, me, not the book.

“Second, remember that you should be able to identify each character by what he or she says. Each one must sound different from the others. And they should not all sound like you; …” ~p. 66

I remember one time when I was writing a story where I would arrange the dialogue in an email format, or IM format, SMS format and sometimes even handwriting. So throughout the story, there will be no dialogue with quotation marks and a narrative of what they are actually doing. I wanted the reader to guess based on what is written. So it contains of email messages, chat messages in which the character use to communicate with each other. Sometimes I would also modify it with a scene where they would communicate on paper–you know, when you’re supposed to be in class, listening to the lecturer, but instead you’d grab a piece of paper (or even your handout) and start writing a message and then you handed it to a friend next to you? Well, that’s what I did in order to vary the communications. If you’re confused, you might wanna read Meg Cabot’s Boy Meets Girl, where she uses the same format in the story. The difference is that I do not put a daily journal or a diary to put a narration in between, while Cabot did that.

Then I asked some friends to read that and sent me feedbacks. I was quite fortunate that most of my friends understand the story. They told me that they liked it and how the story really made them laugh. But a friend came to me one day and said that in the dialogue, there were to many “me” in it. Almost all of the dialogues sound just like me, and then she said that it doesn’t really matter since she understand the plot and everything, but it would be much better if I would put many different characteristics in the dialogues. Not everybody sounds like me. Everyone write their text messages in different ways. Some people like to abbreviate words–too many words, sometimes–and some would write it in a very formal way. Some would mix English and Indonesian altogether while some would strictly wrote in Indonesian. Some would be so strict in the writing including putting a period after each statement while most would simply leave that out, for the period itself is not the important information in the message.

Then I reread it again, and I thought to myself, “Shoot. She’s right.”

“Third, you might want to try putting together two people who more than anything else in the world wish to avoid each other, …” ~p. 66

Now this usually is the hilarious part, and it reminds me so much of many, many scenes I read in Kinsella’s Can You Keep A Secret? Just in case some of you haven’t read the novel, it tells about this girl was freaking out on a plane as it had hit a turbulence on its way back to London, so she suddenly babbled all her secrets to a passenger–a complete stranger–sitting next to her just because she thought she was gonna die. Apparently she survived the flight and then realized that she just told her most secretive information to a complete stranger, so she apologized and all, but at the same time, thought that it wasn’t a big deal at all, for you could only meet the same stranger once in a lifetime, right? Yet the next day turned out to be a complete nightmare to her as she found out that this complete stranger was actually her boss’ boss. And when she was trying so hard to avoid him, what happened was that she got stuck in an elevator with him–and her boyfriend.

I would definitely love to create these kinds of situations and dialogues. Bring it on.

“So let these characters hold back some thoughts, and at the same time, let them detonate little bombs.” ~p. 67

Ah, isn’t this where I got annoyed because Gatsby didn’t get the happy ending he wanted? When Nick Carraway couldn’t tell Tom Buchanan that it was his wife that actually killed Myrtle, not Gatsby. And I got really irked with the situation where Nick realized that the only thing he could do is to let Tom think that Gatsby’s the killer.

Poor Gatsby.

“Dialogue is the way to nail character, so you have to work on getting the voice right.” ~p. 67

Urgh. This is gonna be tough. Dickens sure nailed it, from the way he pictured Flora Casby in Little Dorrit.

“There shouldn’t be just a single important character in your work for whom you have compassion.” ~p. 69

To sum up, creating a perfect dialogue and matching it with the right character is basically like hanging out with the character him/herself. You know, just like hanging out with your friends in a coffee shop, or a diner. I would prefer a coffee shop, though, if you don’t mind.

 Wow. This gonna take a while. A whole lot of a while. Damn.

“I wish there were an easier, softer way, a shortcut, but this is the nature of most good writing; that you find out things as you go along. Then you go back an rewrite.” ~p. 69

Rewrite? Who just said “rewrite”? Are you freaking telling me to screw up and then start all over again? Seriously?

“One last thing: dialogue that is written in dialect is very tiring to read. If  you can do it brilliantly, fine.” ~p. 72

I  really wouldn’t go there yet. At least not now.

Hats off to Amanda Scott, though, for the brilliant Scottish accent.

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Laksmi

An MA student at Waseda University, Shinjuku-ku, Tōkyo, Japan. An avid reader. A language geek as well. And a book hoarder.

2 thoughts on “Upon Reading Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott: Writing – Dialogue”

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