Understood: The Power of Authenticity in Dialogue | Josh Rutherford

“You know how to write good dialogue.”

That was one of the biggest lies I had ever heard.

A professor of mine had uttered that phrase during a lecture, following a script reading from one of my classmates. That student had written dialogue which was OK but not good. In looking back, none of us knew how to write good dialogue (and our professor was only slightly better at it).

In the years that followed, I tried to make it in the screenwriting world. I rewrote my senior project, a full-length feature screenplay, within a year of graduating. I loved the creative process of it all and continued to write, despite no agent or production company showing an interest in my work. By my third script, I started to see improvements in my characters’ voices, unique word choices and syntax with consistency from one scene to the next. With enthusiasm and naiveté, I submitted my project to countless agencies and contests, hoping against hope . . . For an agent to sign me on, for a production company to option my work, or better still, for my script to be picked up and made into a movie.

Fast forward a few more years: I held in my hand a rejection letter from a producer who had agreed to read my latest project on a whim. Six months had passed since my submission, and he finally responded with the news he had passed on my script. The added salt mine to the wound was the pages-long criticism he included, along with some patronizing suggestions that I return to school to start my efforts from scratch.

For months afterward, I ruminated about my next move. I was devastated but I knew I didn’t want to stop writing. In those days and nights of self-pity and analysis, my mind drifted to the second script I had written – which many script readers and contest advisors had ripped apart, one that stood alone as my worst piece of writing ever.

So I turned it into a novel.

I knew there was more to that failed script. I knew it. The projected persisted in my consciousness, haunting and hypnotic, when I finally returned to my laptop and began to brainstorm on my next passion project. The prospect of turning a script – a writing with rigid formatting and page constraints – into a book – a creation freer in content, form, and length – intrigued and inspired me.

That’s not to say my project was without challenges . . .

One of which was dialogue.

Characters speaking words. That’s all dialogue is, in its stripped-down glory. In theory, something so simple. In reality, a device so multilayered in intention and impact it boggles the mind. If done poorly, dialogue can come across as stale and stressed. Or as exposition with quotation marks. Or worse still, dialogue can betray the characters it seeks to represent and resort to reflecting a horrific singular voice: the author’s.

However, in the best of cases, dialogue can help a story to flourish. It can create rich characters through deep, meaningful interactions. It can define beliefs, reveal fears, and plant the seeds of hope. It can go on forever while saying very little and reveal oceans with mere drops of verbiage.

I sought to pursue the latter cause, to instill the best dialogue in the best story I could write.

The resulting work, Sons of Chenia, stood out as my most ambitious writing endeavor to date. I was proud of it then as I am of it now, even though time has removed some of my rose-colored goggles. Not long after I published it, I started my second novel. And that’s when I hit a wall . . .

The dialogue in my second novel was too much like that of my first.

In the first few dozen pages, I had committed the cardinal sin: I was writing dialogue in my own voice. I betrayed my main character, along with all the supporting ones. I had turned them into mouthpieces of exposition rather than the living, breathing individuals they were meant to be.

I had to fix it. For them. For me. For my sanity.

I learned a lot about authenticity in dialogue from writing that second novel. I learned even more from writing the third, along with the fourth book of mine, which I just released. And the lessons keep coming as I work on my fifth novel. From what I’ve learned so far, I could pen volumes on what I know about writing conversation. But for brevity’s sake, I’ll focus on just a few highlights.

Characters Are Not Narrators

The trap even the best writers fall into is to use dialogue as an expository exercise, one in which conversations explain what is happening or reveal information. I’ve guilty of this. You may be too. If a character is asked what happened and they divulge every detail in return . . .

Well, that’s not authentic.

In the real world, people withhold information. They lie. They get nervous and change the subject. They forget or misremember. In few scenarios do any of us speak with one-hundred percent accuracy.

Characters can reveal details . . . In small doses. Remember, they serve a bigger purpose. They exist to live their story, not to tell it.

Subtlety is the Antidote to Stereotypes

Too many writing books I’ve read and courses I’ve attended overstress the importance of variety among characters – and the results are disastrous stereotypes, clichés of the tenth degree, meant to ensure no character ever gets confused for another. Need an example? Consider a sitcom from the seventies or eighties, especially those who paired their characters with catchphrases. I won’t list any for fear of copyright infringement (plus I don’t want to get sued).

The dialogue from such strained personas does create distinction and opposition, though I would argue it hardly establishes the authenticity of the narrative or its settings, let alone its characters.

Think about it: How differently do you sound from the five most important people in your life? From your family? Your friends? When I ponder how my closest five friends from high school and college speak, much of our dialogue – let’s say ninety-nine percent – is similar in tone and word choice.

Ah, but that one percent. It makes a world of difference.

Within that thin slice of life, we find distinct personalities, with their nuances tied to opinions, experiences, and skills. For instance, my best friend is an evangelical Christian while I’m a Catholic. We grew up in the same neighborhood, went to the same schools . . . Yet when it comes to discussing religion, our views differ. We possess an almost identical vocabulary but the words we choose – which reflect our unique beliefs – diverge, especially if our dialogue evolves from friendly banter to serious discussion. 

You Need Lies

I know, I know: You can easily argue lying is not authentic.

So let me push back a little . . .

When was the last time you watched a movie and everyone told the truth? Even if such a film were to be made, it would likely be the most boring thing you’ve ever watched. There would be no suspense. No big reveal. You’d tire after fifteen minutes of watching, maybe less.

Life imitates art here. When was the last time you found yourself in a problematic situation and were told everything? Every fact. Everyone else’s thoughts? Their unfiltered opinions?

Authenticity is the good with the bad. Truth and lies. The obvious and the hidden. You can’t have everything laid bare. Details – and people – need to be concealed. That is how you create drama. And comedy. Or any other piece of work with any sense of worth. That is the power of authenticity in dialogue.

Life happens. It happens to characters. It molds their beliefs, which affects their thoughts and filters into their spoken words. Doubts and hopes. Fear and love. All of that and more are key ingredients to the richness of meaningful conversation, a recipe that can give way – through intention and a lot of practice on the writer’s part – to an experience the reader will never forget.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this exploration of the power of authenticity in dialogue. It’s a complicated and fascinating topic, one that is essential to any great work of art – or just everyday life. What do you think? Do you find yourself drawn to authentic dialogue in your own life? Let me know in the comments below!

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