12/1/14 — BREAKING BAD DIALOGUE: BE CAREFUL WHO YOU TALK FOR
You’ve probably heard the advice before: be careful who you talk to. But when dealing with dialogue, it’s even more important to be careful who you talk for.
When putting dialogue into the mouth of a character, it is important to make sure they speak the way that sort of character would really speak.
This is an ever-present habit after years of writing fiction, and something on my mind as I wrote Tracks: A Novel in Stories, which is rather heavy with dialogue between passengers on a train. Focusing on each character’s unique voice has become an internalized part of writing.
But I was consciously reminded of the point during a recent conversation with a literary agent. She was talking about a submission (from someone else, thankfully) that drove her crazy because everyone talked the same way—in a formal style that was not realistic. Then she said that it wasn’t just novices—even professional and experienced writers fall into this dialogue deathtrap.
She cited a recent Woody Allen movie as an example. The characters were living in California, but she picked up that they all spoke like New Yorkers.
I knew exactly what she was talking about, because just a few days prior I was making the same comments about what many consider to be one of the best-written television programs in history: Breaking Bad.
Yes, Breaking Bad was a very well written show. But it became obvious to me that one of the screenwriters was coming through every time the term “and what not” was used.
Sure, I’d heard the term before. The first few times I heard it used in Breaking Bad, I thought, “I haven’t heard that phrase in awhile,” but it seemed okay. After hearing it several times from different characters, it became out of place. And really, would the character Jessie really say “and what not?” Seems like he would end with “or whatever,” “and stuff,” or something more aligned with his character and other dialogue.
Of course, we’re probably all guilty of it from time to time, and it’s nearly impossible not to put some of yourself in your writing.
This same fault was pointed out to me in one of my stories I workshopped with some author friends. The story involved a mentally challenged character, and I had him using somewhat outdated terminology. He would say things like “by God” and end sentences with phrases like, “you bet I will.” Readers thought it odd that he spoke that way—and it didn’t sound like my way of speaking. I had my reasons for the antiquated dialogue. I was paying homage to Lenny from Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, trying to put a little of that character’s language into mine.
However, being called on this unusual language in a modern story, I understood that if I wanted to include it, I needed to provide a reason. In the story, it was already established that the main character’s father had left him at an early age, unable (or unwilling) to deal with his condition. So I added a scene, pivotal to the character’s development, in which we see the father arguing with the mother, see him talk to the boy, and hear the antiquated speech in him. My character internalized the scene and his father’s language as a way to hold on to a part of him.
Had the writers of Breaking Bad given a reason for Jessie (and the other offending characters) to use the phrasing, had Woody Allen given a reason for every LA character to speak with a Bronx accent, it would have been fine.
When you’re writing dialogue, be careful who you’re talking as, and make sure their dialogue rings true to their character. And if you want to have a character use an unusual phrase, it may be good to give that phrase a history—and your character a motive for using it.
Breaking bad dialogue can go a long way to improving your writing.