Characters, General Writing

Transcription and the Illusion of Dialog

Description is mostly observation. By contrast, when learning to write effective dialog, observation is not enough. Instead, you need to write the way people think they talk, not how they actually do.

This gap between illusion and reality is partly why hearing a recording of ourselves is such an unnerving process. However, even more important is most people’s conviction that they speak concisely.

In fact, almost none of us do. Most of us ramble. We repeat ourselves. We change direction. We lose track of syntax and drop threads and forget to return to them. In twenty years of interviewing people, I have only met one person who spoke in complete, articulate sentences – and he was a lawyer and a professor, and probably a genius.

Confront most of us with a word for word transcript, and our reaction is likely to be even worse. In conversation most of us have learned to mentally edit out each other’s verbal weaknesses. But on the page, the truth is there for all to see and to refer back to. That is why journalists say that the worst thing you can do to someone is quote them word for word. In fact, you can tell from how a person is quoted in the media how popular they are — the more faithful the reporting, the worse a person sounds and the more unpopular they are. More to the point, our misconception is also why writing dialog for an interview or fiction is not simply a matter of copying or imitating how someone speaks. Even the playwright Harold Pinter, whose dialog has a reputation for being life-like, is actually giving an imitation that at least partly preserves our illusions of how we speak.

As a writer of any sort, you need to learn how to present this illusion. Otherwise, your dialog will lie dead on arrival on the page, and encourage readers to skip it.

The Lesson in Transcription

Fortunately, the learning is simple. Download a recording app for your phone and interview a friend or family member for ten minutes. The subject of the interview can be anything – you are after the structure, not the content. If all else fails, the interviewee’s life story or opinion on a news story should get most people talking. Start slowly, asking questions with easy answers, like where they live and work. As your interviewee warms up, they are likely to become less careful in how they speak, which is what you want.

When you done, transcribe the interview. Transcribing is an unlovely process that often involves going over a single sentence over and over until you get it right, but the effort does make you notice the interviewer’s habits and idiosyncrancies – the length of their sentences, their favorite words, and more. Probably, you will get something like this excerpt that I did years ago with a cartoonist:

“I need very strong pressure to do anything at all. Otherwise, I’d just be sitting on the couch.”everything I’ve ever done is because some has said to me, ‘Hey, you should do this.’ And in the studio setting, I definitely need someone to tell me what to do.” Never use ‘plan’ in connection with me doing anything. It’s just that some of my research is more entertaining than the actual comic. Plenty of times, I’ve thrown something into my writing just so I’d have an excuse to refer to — use stuff from the documents I’ve found. Because they’re very rare and you just find this stuff, and it’s really funny or illuminating or something. And I’m just like, ‘Oh, God, just look at this thing. I have to fit it in somewhere.”I think that a lot of the things that we live with every day have a bit more of the story in them. It’s dramatic, and it’s very very human, and there’s failure and success — it’s a lot of story. I’m obsessed with it. I can’t get away from it.”

Transcribing made clear that the interviewee is thorough, articulate, and excited about what she is doing. You can tell from the long sentences, and the way the same basic points are made several times in different ways.

However, to be honest, she rambles. Since providing information was my goal, I could easily reduce the original 180 words to less than 50, and even capture a hint of what the interview sounds like:

“I definitely need someone to tell me what to do. Plenty of times, I’ve thrown something into my writing just so I’d have an excuse to use stuff from the documents I’ve found. It’s a lot of story. I’m obsessed with it.

That reads far better on the page.

Transferring to Fiction

To seem realistic, your fictional dialog needs to be closer to the edited version than the original. However, because fiction is about expressing character,it can have a bit more of the original’s repetition.

For example, imagine that a friend named Jason is trying to persuade a writer named Leslie to go away on an overnight trip:

“You want me to do what?” Leslie said. “It takes a lot to get me off this couch.”

Jason clung to the door frame. “We’ve been planning for months.”

“Never use “plan” in connection with me,” Leslie looked up from her keyboard. “I’ve just found this new stuff for my comic. It’s funny, and Oh, God, I have to find a use for it. It’s fun, it’s dramatic, it’s very, very human. It’s a lot of story. I can’t get away from it, right now.”

See what just happened? Just from looking at a transcription, I have created a character who sounds realistic, and who reveals character in how she speaks. Substitute the unedited transcription, and all that disappears.

If you can, transcribe half a dozen interviews. To varying degrees, you will find the same difference between the original and the effective. If you choose, you could even collect a couple of dozen transcriptions and use them as sources when creating new characters. Yet, if you go no further than realizing that effective dialog is a conventional portrayal of how people actually speak, you will still have taken a major step forward in your writing.

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