Why am I titling a post after a late-90s political drama?
Because The West Wing‘s writing is just so damned good. The whip-snap of sentences thrown back and forth by the characters has a cadence to it that’s addictive. The allusions to literary, theatrical, film, and history that pepper every episode make it seem as though everyone in The West Wing‘s universe has a masters in every humanities discipline. It’s unrealistic, and incredible.
There’s a battle when writing dialogue that I struggle with, that probably most authors struggle with. And that is how real to make the words coming from the character’s mouths. Listen to a person talk in the real world and it’s full of idioms, stutters, likes and uhs to the point where actually putting that on the page would be inviting the reader to throw their hands up in despair and chuck the book into the nearest fire.
By the same token, dropping high-dollar words and references ala The West Wing is risky. In a TV show, where the action keeps moving whether the viewer understands what’s been said or not, there’s a bit more pliability with the Ph.D caliber quotes. With a book, where a reader has time and may feel compelled to look up any given mention, there has to be a careful balance between verbal fencing and, you know, sounding like a professor trying to impress a board of peers.
I try to aim for the middle. Truth to the character – meaning that I’m not going to have my Southern Gentleman start dropping ghetto slang. Truth to their background – meaning the teenager who’s grown up among native Pygmies isn’t going to start quoting Aristotle. Truth to the story – meaning I’m not going to write down all the breaks, pauses, and broken sentences a real conversation tends to consist of (unless it’s adding something to the scene).
Something to try if you’re not confident in the dialogue skills – and let’s be real, just about everyone, myself definitely included, can use practice in this area – swing through a screenplay. It’ll force you to power scenes and character through dialogue, and you’ll start to take more notice of the words you choose and how they reflect on the character speaking them.