Robert J. Sawyer

Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer

Natural dialogue

by Rob - February 16th, 2006.
Filed under: Uncategorized.

It’s very difficult for most writers to do natural-sounding dialogue. Whatever skill I have at it came from years of being a freelance magazine journalist, and transcribing hundreds of hours of interviews, and also from the countless hours I spent editing audio tape back in the 1980s, when I was doing some work for CBC Radio’s Ideas series.

Every day, I spend half an hour on a treadmill, and I usually watch something on DVD while doing so. I recently finished watching the entire run of the BBC series The Office, and today finished Season Three of the HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm. Both are brilliant, and very, very funny, but perhaps the most remarkable thing about them is that they have incredibly natural dialogue.

Interestingly, the techniques by the scriptwriters — Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais in the case of the The Office, and Larry David and his team for Curb Your Enthusiasm — use very different techniques to get this effect. The Office has every word, every nuance, scripted (and the scripts are available in book form), while Curb Your Enthusiasm is at least partially improvised. But both are well worth studying.

Although ostensibly a comedy, I found The Office quite poignant in a lot of ways. As Thoreau said, most of us live lives of quiet desperation. The dead-end existences of most of the people in that show are heart-breaking to watch, while at the same time ringing as absolutely true. It’s one of the best TV shows I ever seen.

I did watch one episode of the American version of The Office, just to see how they’d managed the translation; it’s a very faithful adaptation. Ridiculously, though, the guy who adapted it for American television — by doing little more than changing character names and moving the setting from Slough to Scranton — gets higher billing than the people who actually created the show (Merchant and Gervais). Anyway, the US version is decent, but the UK version is the one to see, in my opinion.

Leave a Reply