Submitted for your approval: While driving home late last night through dark and wooded country roads, listening to a Twilight Zone podcast, the following quote was put forth by one Mr. Rod Serling, a personal hero to me and I’m sure many others:
“Very often one of the major problems with strong writers who deal in dialogue above plot, which happens to be more my forte than plot, dialogue–If you look at some of the pages of the things I’ve written…shut your eyes! You won’t know who’s talking because they all talk alike. And who do they talk like? Me. Now that’s wrong.”
I was delighted to hear these words come directly out of his mouth, because the opinion expressed is one I share.
Dialogue between multiple characters who all sound alike is my one of my chief beefs with writers, and yet I battle the urge myself. Everyone wants to put a little bit of himself (or herself)into each character he(or she)creates.
But when they all sound like you, and you’re not writing about something akin to the Borg Collective, it’s gonna fall flat because it’s sheer vanity; it’s a barrage of redundant bathroom selfies posted by your insecure single coworker on Instagram.
I’ve been saying this for years now, after identifying the problem within myself upon noticing it in the work of writers who are far more skilled and successful than I.
I realized that I was doing it and since I’ve started writing again in recent months, I’ve made a conscious effort to avoid the practice, and to step outside of myself and allow my characters to be who they are.
Sometimes who they are is dumb and their speech should reflect that. Sometimes people aren’t particularly talkative; they communicate with the barest minimum of words they can get by with and still effectively convey what they want to say. Some people never shut up. Some people don’t like the same kinds of music and movies that you do. Some people are misogynistic. Some people are racist. The conjoined twins known as depression and anxiety aren’t a part of everyone’s daily life. Some people are predominantly happy. Some, on the other hand, might feel like they have nothing left to live for. These are indisputable facts of life, and if the purpose of your work is to take a snapshot of life, to show it in all of its beauty, all of its ugliness, and all of the many shades of grey between, your characters have to feel, to the reader, like real people, with varying sets of life experiences under their belts, influencing their thoughts and actions.
Dialogue flows from me very easily, and I love the fact that I share this trait with Rod Serling, by his own self-assessment.
I also love the fact that even he, who had achieved so much, was conscious of his flaws and perpetually worked to correct them.
I wish I could sit down and have a conversation with Rod and tap into his brilliantly insightful mind. I’ve always strongly identified with him as a fellow observer of the human condition, with his penchant for subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle metaphor…
There’s nuance and layer to every word he speaks in these college lectures that are thankfully preserved and readily available to listen to online. Do yourself a favor and take the time to check them out. They’ll absolutely blow your mind.
Wherever you are, Rod, thank you for sparking my imagination from the moment I saw my first Twilight Zone late one summer night on PBS in 1989 at the age of 13. Your contributions to the world of art are immeasurable.