Thursday, April 26, 2012


When I did my inadvertent series on turning negative personality traits into things that make you a better writer, I mentioned that I had more traits I wanted to talk about. I thought I'd spend today talking about my tendency to veer off-topic.

"Which Way?" by Mike Coates, found here
In my blog entries, I make an effort to keep my posts on-topic. Nonetheless, you've probably noticed that I touch on a lot of things, some of which I come back to later, others that remain merely an offhand comment. I'm even worse about this in spoken word, where I can't hit the backspace key to stay on-topic. We haven't exactly passed a rule against tangents in the writing group, but it has been requested several times that, during a critique, we talk about the work, and not whatever subject we think of. (I'm not the only one who does it, but, the last 5 times people steered us back on track, I was the one who'd grabbed a conversational morsel and run with it.)

That makes it difficult to carry on conversations with me, especially if you needed to discuss something in particular with me. I've gotten a lot of practice with stopping myself mid-conversation, and tracing how I arrived at a given subject.

This practice has been a great help in writing dialogue. When I have two characters talking, that isn't to fill pages. I have to show something about those characters, while also conveying something the reader doesn't yet know. The conversation, then, will have to naturally meander. I could have my characters bluntly ask whatever it is they want to know, but I've never been happy with how that reads. It's always abrupt and jarring, and my own natural tendency is to have the person being asked react defensively. People don't just blurt things out. At least, not the people I know.

Instead, I think about my own conversational meanderings, and how I reach the topics I do. I look at the steps involved in getting from, say, a discussion on local politics to the cute thing the cats did this morning. I think about the subtle push-and-pull people exert on a conversation to steer it to their liking, and what happens when that's too overt.

Obviously I have to take shortcuts. I can't have a conversation as random as one I'd really have, or I'd have people blathering on for pages. Dialogue isn't meant to sound exactly like a conversation; it's supposed to sound like a stylized conversation that fits the characters' voices and the tone of the book.

I don't know how people who don't meander in their conversations learn how to lead their dialogue in an organic way. Probably through trial and error. That sounds like a lot of work, though. I'm glad I have my experience with conversational tangents to guide me.

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