Sunday, May 14, 2006

Bad Dialogue

I read a mediocre novel on the plane from Edinburgh to London, and watched a mediocre film on the plane from London to Toronto. In both instances, I was struck by how peculiarly bad the dialogue was. It often seemed as if the characters weren’t even engaged in the same conversation. I’m not referring to the sort of missed communication dialogue that can reveal so much about the relationships between characters in, say, a James Salter short story. I’m referring to characters that don’t seem to be speaking to one another at all.

I can’t help but think that it would take hard work to create this effect, that it could be nearly as difficult as writing good dialogue. How does it happen? Perhaps, at least as far as the film is concerned, it’s a script-by-committee problem. The various people involved in the drafting may have different ideas about the identities of the characters, the nature of their relationships with one another, and hence what any given conversation between them is about. Inconsistencies and contradictions creep in and are never resolved.

This seems a less plausible explanation with respect to a novel where one expects a lone authorial consciousness to be at work. Then again, in light of recent revelations about the roles played by researchers, collaborators, and book packagers in the drafting of some high-profile novels, perhaps it’s naïve of me ever to assume a lone authorial consciousness. It might have required a whole team of people to produce the terrible dialogue in my airplane book.


Booklad said...

I'm not as familiar with how novel writers manuscripts are changed, but I can tell you from personal experience the screenplay by committe idea you propose is exactly right. I'd also add that there is often a "power struggle" effect as well. A director wants to make the film "his/her own" and changes a perfectly good storyline or dialogue simply because they want to add their own mark to the script. Rather like a territory struggle between neighborhood canines. The point is that mediocrity is acceptable and often encouraged. ...sigh....

Kate S. said...


Thanks for offering an inside view on the screenplay scenario. Very illuminating! The "power struggle" effect hadn't even occurred to me. It could certainly explain some of the non sequiturs that crop up in on-screen dialogue.