May 22, 2013
First, a clarification: Some people blog every day, and it is widely recommended that bloggers do so at least once a week. I must confess that I find once a month challenging. Twitter gets maybe one a week from me, so.... At any rate, I am sure those who follow or visit this blog have other sources of entertainment.
This blog is also a break from the build-up I have tried to give to the publication of The Chinese Spymaster, expected this summer. This blog does continue on the theme of a writer's education. I found in writing (translating and selecting) The Battle of Chibi that there were many passages that included dialog and thought it odd that some translations minimized this. At any rate, to coincide with the appearance of a (slightly) revised version of "Heaven is High and the Emperor is Far Away, a Play," my translation and adaptation of Lao She's Teahouse, I offer this blog on writing dialog. Following is the "proof" of the cover from Createspace:
First, dialog should not, in my view, mean that the rules of good grammar and spelling are suspended. Some authors seem to believe that this leads to inauthentic language. I think the true challenge in writing dialog is to write to the highest standards of correctness one can within the limits of credibility. The original Mandarin of Teahouse was, one is informed, an accurate rendering of Beijing dialect. I have no idea how to convey that in English and therefore chose to write the dialog as "standard English" with a few exclamations--"wah" and "ai-ya"--that I hope act as sign-posts that the play does not take place, say, in Kansas.
I hasten to add that I would not wish to change a single syllable of Faulkner or Twain or Joyce, but my own modest thought about this is that there is entirely too much bad "dialect," that it is best left to experts, and that it is actually easier to write standard English.
As much as possible, dialog also enables the writer to show rather than to tell. This is not always the case as even in real life we gossip and exchange news in indirect speech. Friends get together and discuss, for example, the passing of some custom, practice, or of some other friend. But generally dialog enables the writer to show people arguing and quarreling as opposed to telling us about it. For writers, it is generally accepted that this is a good thing.
Dramatic dialog has the added requirement that it carries on at a good pace. Those who write plays and have watched them performed cringe at moments of "dead air." Often such moments can be covered up by more or less antic stage "business." But it is best that the dialog be crisply written (and that the actors remember their lines).
Like all writing, dialog should contribute to some point of the story whether this is the development of a character, the detailing of a plot element or the depiction of some action. Fellow writers who have difficulty with dialog are encouraged to try writing or adapting a play to get the appropriate workout.
(Details on purchasing the new revised version of "Heaven is High" may be found under the appropriate tab of this blog.)