Sometimes I run across an older book that’s usually out-of-print, but has exceptional wisdom locked up in its pages. I found this one at my local Half Priced Books.
The very nature of this book—20 essays about writing by the best SFF authors—makes it hard to review as a whole. I think a better strategy is to look at each chapter in detail. See all of my WSF&F chapter reviews.
Chapter 4: Dialog
This is Isaac Asimov’s second of five chapters in the book. As a writer of books that are mostly dialog, when he thinks “of the art of writing I tend to think of dialog.” His first example is a look back at Victorian dialog. When compared to modern language it seems silted and overwrought. But written dialog is not a perfect example of the spoken language of the time. Just as movies tend to feature better-than-average looking people, dialog does the same to language. Asimov’s example is that movie stars don’t look like average people. They look like movie stars. Also, fictional heroes are braver, stronger, and more ingenious “than anyone you’re likely to meet. Why shouldn’t they speak better too?” At the same time the characters need to sound like people, not pompous stuffed-shirts. Sometimes the well-placed ungrammatical exclamation is exactly what’s needed to humanize a character. He cites Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn as the first example of a book written in substandard English. But it is still a great work of literature. While the words were mostly slang, the sentences and paragraphs were the work of a master. Asimov as most writers, draw the line at vulgarity. His position is that his characters are well-educated and should be able to express themselves better than a profanity-spewing fire hose. He notes times have changed and it’s expected that some profanity will creep into almost any novel. In some cases it would be criminal to not have characters swear. Asimov works hard to avoid it, but he realizes that other authors have other styles. This was another short chapter, having just under five pages. Even with it being so short it was still packed with advice:
- Avoid overly ornate language.
- Some ungrammatical dialog is good for emphasis and adds realism.
- Be conscious in the use of profanity.
- Characters are usually “better than” ordinary people, so they should speak better too.
- Writing uneducated characters/ungrammatical dialog is difficult. The structure of the story must support it.
Short chapters like this need to be read multiple times. The advice is densly packed inbetween anecdodtes and examples. A second or third reading teases out the meaning that was missed the first time. This book continues to pour out widsom at an unexected rate. The next chapter is the longest yet and I might have to break into several parts.