Tuesday, October 4, 2016

No Talking, Please

This isn’t about being quiet while a professional speaks, or not whispering when you’re bored, or being the good listener nearly everyone aspires to be. It’s about being a novelist.

Tip: Although some novels are offered orally, novels are written—not spoken.

That means if you’re writing the way you talk, stop! If you’re transcribing what you hear, stop! If you long to meticulously record what people actually say to each other, stop!

For better or worse, the composing of a novel has preciously little to do with what’s said in the real world, how well you capture that, or what your friends and family share. Even when they’re seriously pissed off.

Why not keep in mind some of these disparities between the spoken and written word?

1. Real conversation is really boring. Really often. Especially on paper.

Understandably, people daydream lots when even their most beloved family members address them. They have to. If not, they could potentially perish during the onslaught of tedious, redundant, tangential, and judgmental details. Lengthy conversation is often tolerable. Minds wander. Images appear. Grocery lists are written and rewritten. Toleration of wordy prose? Not so much. 

Be realistic. Be fair. Be thoughtful. Don’t force your readers to skim.

2.  In the real world, conversation involves audience response.

For the writer, this is both blessing and curse. It’s a blessing because you can skillfully circumvent all the ploys listeners employ. It’s a curse because since your audience contributes little or nothing: you have to do all the work.

When people converse, they ask questions. What did you mean? Why didn’t she answer? Even, who’s Neil Chambray? Novel readers can’t ask questions. They get it. Or don’t. And if they don’t get it often enough, you know what happens.

3. Extensive physical cues enhance real-world dialogue.

That’s what makes Skype popular. The audience interprets visual cues, notes tone of voice, recognizes the shift from merry to serious. For better or worse, one of the novelist’s tasks is making what characters say so concrete and comprehensive that readers believe they can see the dialogue they’re hearing.

4. Outside of fiction, listener expectations are remarkably low.

Aware that people are speaking extemporaneously, and that unless we’re at a meeting or lecture, we’re willing to accept this individual’s foibles, we accept a rather significant amount of repetition, backtracking, irrelevance, hyperbole, self-congratulation, obfuscation, and ambiguity. After all, we want to know what this person has to say. We persevere, knowing the irritation is finite. In fiction? If this happens too often, well, it’s easier to choose another novel than another friend or family member.

5. Especially in speech, crummy word choice and sentence structure are more frequent than occasional.

Casual speech, even from the wittiest, most brilliant and eloquent, has severe limitations. There is the prevalence of passive voice. Mixed metaphors make us so colorblind that we fail to detect the true colors of sound bites. Between you and I, the rules of grammar isn’t always impeccable, especially after an extra glass of wine. On paper, spoken idioms that sound just right become ships careening into each other because it’s a dark and stormy night. 

Writing a novel is nothing like “telling a story.” Save the talking for conversation with your friends.

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