Thursday, August 4, 2011

When a Bar Is Not Just a Bar

In the name of research I went out last night with a bunch of friends I haven't seen in years. Most of them 23 years, to be specific. High school friends that were in town for a week set up a get-together at a local waterfront restaurant to catch up. Okay - so it wasn't really in the name of research, but while I was there, why not do a little careful listening?

In the short story I've been tweaking the last month, the main character that has just left the military for civilian life meets up with some soldier friends at a bar. My advisor advised me that the dialogue was too pointed - too about what the story was about, when really dialogue in real life skirts what we want to say. At a bar, the soldiers wouldn't be talking about the details of war and what they regret, they would be doing everything BUT talking about it, while thinking about it, as if they could escape the reality if they just kept off-topic.

So last night, as I sat with friends around the table on the deck of Madigan's, I listened to the way people talked, the way the conversations flowed with those of us who had no seen each other in over two decades. And you know what? My advisor was right. We all talked about things that essentially didn't matter in the larger scheme of life. There were, at any time, three or four conversations going, about traffic on the highway, the teachers we remembered we loved and hated, the humidity, the DJ who seemed to want to be our new best friend, the song options for karaoke, and a hundred other things I don't even remember.

But all the while, I was thinking of my friend Jean who died a few years ago - who no doubt would have been sitting at that table with us, who would have sung karaoke. The song the first guys chose to sing was one Jean and I sang loud and often on car trips, one which brought back a wave of emotions that were surprisingly more sweet than sad.

The thing is, real life conversations at a bar are interesting to those in them, at that moment in time, but they make for a boring story. So how to mix the two - the important conversation they want to have, and are having in their head, about the dead they saw, the attacks and brutality, the comraderie that comes with those kind of circumstances and the loss of that when you come home - and the conversations which happens out loud. How to intertwine them in such a way that the surface dialogue conveys the inner turmoil they are hiding.

I wonder sometimes if I'm writing more complex stories now, or if because of school I'm letting my stories become more complex.

I remember the days when sitting down to write a story was just about writing the story. And going to a bar with some friends was just a conversation among friends. But I would't change a thing about either.


  1. Oh, no...guilty! I am (finally) closing in on the end of the first draft of my current novel, and I fear my dialogue may be just as your advisor described! Thanks for giving me something to think about WHEN I get to revisions!Your point about intermingling the two is something I'll tuck away.

  2. The older I get and the more life I experience, the more complex my stories have become. I see it as growth and I love it. :-)

    I think you're right - mixing the two types of conversation is the way to go, but doing it is tricky. Hope you can get it figured out (I know you will!).

  3. As a reader, some of the most effective plot-developing conversations would seem contrived in real life. A mundane conversation is interrupted by another character who steers the conversation toward the main plot, for example. So maybe you just need to bite the bullet and make something up.

    Then again, we did eventually talk about Jean after enough drinks. So maybe you just need to condense over an hour's worth of OPHS-style catching up chit-chat into a few paragraphs :)

  4. Okay, first off, i loved this post. You put this into very easy words to understand. I also really want to read what you're writing based on these things you said about this one scene. I think even though this is "just a bar" sounds crucial. This will represent them in all areas of their life. I mean, in any social situation these men go into, they will still have War in the backs of their minds. Some maybe forever. Obviously it will get better, but I'll bet if you put a group of soldiers back together after 40 years it will be the same.

    I think blending the two is the answer. Some dialogue mixed with inner dialogue, maybe make up some inside jokes they share that are maybe funny, but also awkward and uncomfortable.

    I also like Matt's idea above to condense a few hours idle chit chat into a paragraph or so and then maybe have just a few of the guys hanging around at the end. Maybe they were hanging around because they actually want to "go there" and nobody wants to be the one to start it. After a few rounds of drinks, someone is going to though.

    If all else fails, and this sounds dumb, but if I'm struggling with a scene I actually close my eyes and imagine it as a movie. Score, camera angles, the whole nine. sometimes looking at it from that perspective (where you can't get inside someones head) can really make things clearer.

    Okay, I've rambled long enough!

  5. Very cool post.

    I listen to conversations ALL THE TIME.

    Since I've been writing YA - I listen to the teens talk and they talk about NOTHING important, even between the ones that have important stuff to discuss.


    Also - it's interesting how most people avoid confrontation, but those who don't, really jump into it.

    And yes. Writing makes us all HUGE observers of the world around us.

  6. How to mix the two is definitely the hardest part of dialogue! Isn't it funny how the more you know about writing, the more you realize you need to learn?

  7. I really like the combination of inner dialogue and actual conversation. I think that's as realistic as it gets, because it's the real dialogue that triggers our inner thoughts, isn't it? We don't think, "Oh, I miss my friend Jean, I think I'll share a memory out loud" - we hear a song and it triggers that thought.

    You're right, though. How to combine the two is difficult. How do we say what isn't being said?!