Each time I sit down in front of the laptop, one of my goals is to craft dialogue that is crisp, well paced, realistic and original.
A daunting task depending upon the day.
I’m much better at this than I used to be. The first draft of SOMETHING MISSING contained almost no dialogue, and though not intentional, I suspect that I was subconsciously drawn to a relatively isolated character like Martin out of fear of having to write any dialogue at all.
Eventually dialogue found its way into the book and my skills and confidence improved considerably, but my first drafts still tend to be littered with overly-dramatic monologues at key moments in the story, and I still have difficulty managing conversations between three or more people. But I’m working hard at improving on these elements as well.
This is why I was so offended by a conversation I overheard in the men’s room at the Bristol Clarion on Saturday night. I was standing in the handicapped stall, changing into my tuxedo in preparation for a wedding that I was about to DJ. As I was removing my clothing from the garment bag, I heard a man enter, and a moment later, another.
The first man, who I will call Bill, was considerably younger than the second, who I will call William. They began their conversation with hearty greetings and it became immediately apparent that the men knew one another well but had not seen one another in quite some time. Bill was recently divorced and works in insurance. William is a retired minister who recently moved to Wethersfield. As I listened, I couldn’t help but be simultaneously surprised and offended by the quality of their conversation. Exchanges between the two included:
Bill: I don’t know if you heard. We got divorced last March. After fourteen years, she just decided that she didn’t want to be married anymore.
William: So sorry to hear that, Bill. But it’s her loss. She let go of a good man. And when you’re ready, just remember: there are many other fish in the sea.
Bill: Are you preaching anymore?
William: Yes I am. I thought I had retired, but they asked me to handle a few services and now I’m working harder than ever. Who would’ve thought? Ha! Ha! Ha!
Bill: The Lord takes us down mysterious paths. Doesn’t he?
William: He most certainly does.
William: At least the rain held up until after the ceremony. Right?
Bill: Yes. Thank goodness for that. But it looks like rain tomorrow, too.
William: Really? That’s too bad. I had a church picnic planned.
Bill: Well, you know those weathermen. When was the last time they got something right?
William: You let me know when they finally do!
William and Bill: Ha! Ha! Ha!
I was beside myself. For a moment, I wanted to throw open that stall door and shout, “Are you kidding me? Is this the best you guys can do? My editor would be drawing huge lines through this dialogue! Could you be more boring? Could you be more cliché?”
Time and time again I read that the great writers of dialogue are excellent listeners and professional eavesdroppers, but whenever I take the time to listen in on a conversation, as I did on Saturday night, all I seem to get is drivel.
Then I started to worry. Are most conversations boring and cliché? Is mindless banter about the weather and the use of tired idioms like there are plenty of other fish in the sea more tragically common than I thought?
Worst still, could I also be this boring in real life?
I guess that in the end, all I can hope for is that the dialogue that I write to be more vibrant and entertaining than the dialogue that I hear in restrooms.
Sadly, that might not be so hard after all.