Thinking about dialogue

On Friday evening, my wife suggested the children pick out a movie to watch before bed. We could have a little family time, eat some popcorn and hang out. Something that has been shockingly hard to accomplish since she started back at work this past summer. The children wanted to see the Star Trek about the whales (Star Trek IV – the Voyage home). We fired up the ol’ Netflix streaming, and got it rolling. As usual, I had a notepad and paper and was busily nerd-crafting away in my own little world when a bit of dialogue caught my attention. Now, before I start in, I want to be clear. I love Star Trek, I do NOT think the screen-writers are idiots. I do, however, think the bit of dialogue in question is cringe-worthy, partly because it mucks-up details of the plot while actually trying to address them. Now, in analyzing the bit of dialogue, I fully understand why this was written as it was. That said, as an aspiring writer I would say the following exchange should be held up as a shining example of how not to get information across to your reader. Also, I apologize if the quote isn’t 100% accurate, my transcription skills aren’t awesome.

“Kirk: Spock?”

“Spock: As suspected. The probe’s transmissions are the songs sung by whales.”

“Kirk: Whales…”

“Spock: Specifically, humpback whales.”

“Bones: That’s crazy, who would send a probe hundreds of light years to talk to whales?”
“Kirk: It’s possible. Whales have been on earth for longer than that.”
“Spock: Ten million years earlier. Humpback whales were heavily hunted by men. They’ve been extinct since the twenty-first century. It is possible that an alien intelligence sent the probe to determine why they lost contact.

“Bones: My god”

This is a very short exchange to reveal a lot of details, some of which are lost on the viewer, or at least horribly muddied because of the execution. First off, we have the obvious message that people hunted these animals to extinction sometime in the 21st century. The way this comes off is too heavy-handed. Instead of being a throw away comment, as it would be if it were true. It’s too direct for anything that would happen in casual conversation. If Spock were giving a paper in a research symposium, this might be the appropriate phrasing, but he’s not, and so it wouldn’t, even for a half-Vulcan. Second, we have an alien intelligence that has sent a probe to make contact with a species it would have lost contact with hundreds of years prior. Between 200 and 280 years based on the information we have. In order for this to work out, the communication would have had to be near instantaneous because the implication is that the probe traveled at speeds slower than warp, but near light speed. Though, none of that’s really clear at any point, and the more I think about it, the bigger the inconsistency seems. I’m going to ignore that though because it could be dealt with easily enough, and it’s actually not super-relevant. Another problem is that Kirk adds information about how long whales have been on Earth. It’s really just irrelevant or, at best, supports a dodgy explanation about the whale’s communication with this alien intelligence, and how long it took the probe to get there. In any event, as executed, this bit of dialogue is supposed to carry the justification for a big part of the plot and, in my opinion, it seems to muddy more than clarify. A better exchange might look like the following (read these in the voice of each character, I’m also trying to stick as closely as I can to their voices and character):

“Kirk: Spock, are you going to tell us what’s on your mind?”

“Spock: Yes. I believe the probe’s transmissions are the songs sung by whales.”

“Bones: That’s crazy. Who would send a probe hundreds of light years to talk to an extinct species?”

“Kirk: It’s true. They were hunted to extinction almost three hundred years ago.”

“Spock: If the whales were in contact with a distant alien intelligence, it is possible they described the relentless hunting of their species by men. ”

“Kirk: Do you think the probe was sent as retribution for the killing of the whales?

“Spock: Yes, I do.”

“Bones: My god.”

The first thing I’m going to say about my revision is that it is still not awesome, but I like it better. It fixes a few problems I have always had with the plot of the movie in general, or at least that I didn’t understand until really looking at this little bit of dialogue. First off, it recognizes the fact that all three men would know about the extinction of Humpback Whales (the disappearance of such a large charismatic species would be remembered even 300 years in the future), they should talk about it like they do. Then, my revision goes a step further and gives a reason for the attack on earth, which had been implied by the plot, but the characters seem oblivious, which they wouldn’t be because, again, they are all smart guys. This bit still gets across the main points, without silly monologue. Of course, there are other possible scenarios that the writers had in mind, rendering my revision invalid.

I feel like writing dialogue can seem daunting to an aspiring writer because if you screw it up, your reader will not forgive you. Not only that, it’s tough to know how much detail you can strip out before you start to lose context. I usually start with a lot of very specific information in all exchanges, and then remove during revision, relying on context to fill in the blanks, or sometimes a physical tell, like a tightening of a jaw muscle or something. Perhaps my point in this post is to say, if your characters would reasonably know a bit of information, let them know it or at least have a reason why they shouldn’t. Show them catching on, when something is being explained. Your characters are supposed to be people, and like people they will figure stuff out and say things like “oh, now I get it…” Not only that, you can get it to your reader just as effectively through dialogue even if everyone knows the same information.

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