You ever really listen to a conversation? A real life one? Especially if the two—or more—participants don’t know each other that well? Man, it gets fucking confusing in there. If you took what each person was saying in isolation, you might find it tricky to trace the actual thread of the conversation they all think they’re having. What relates this anecdote about the bishop’s wife to that one about the best place to hunt in the Rockies? Often, not much. Because most people don’t actually have conversations, by which I mean an exchange of ideas and opinions with considered responses to each other. People, especially strangers or others outside the circle of your heart, tend to just…talk. About themselves, about other stuff. It all masses into an amorphous word-blob that is hard to pin down with a subject.
So: how do we translate this to writing? Do we meander and non-reply and tell unimportant stories, because that’s how real people talk and we need that ring of veracity? Or do we make things more focused but also more unrealistic?
My two cents: stories are not real life. They should be less of a mirror held up to Life and more of a lens through which it gets focused. So conversations in stories should be like real-life one, but boiled down. Reduced. Concentrated. Until they serve the story’s ends. People should talk with purpose. They should have something they want out of that conversation, and they should either get it or not, but there should be desire and drive. They shouldn’t just flail around and waste a lot of space talking about stuff that doesn’t either advance plot or illustrate character.
There are other opinions out there, and hell knows there’s enough books that take the more hyper-realistic route and include conversations in all their wandering, realistic glory. And that can be good, in moderation. Especially if it makes a point about how people don’t communicate effectively. But, for my money, trim that shit like an overgrown hedge. Reduce it until it’s sharp as an arrow. Don’t make the reader wade through a lot of ineffectual nonsense to find the point of all this.
Or at least make the digression about the bishop’s wife really fucking funny.
(Housekeeping Notice: I’m taking a week off from the blog in order to finish up some other projects that have languished in the Land of The Half-Done for too long. No new posts next week, and comments will likely get moderated at a slower pace than usual. Behave yourselves while I’m gone.)