No “TV” Dialogue

Aaron Sorkin should never write a book.

Or at least he shouldn’t try to use one of the agents I was looking at this week.

This particular agent did not want to see “material influenced by TV (too much Dialogue)” or books of TV or film “scenes”.  I find this to be an interesting complaint as good TV is probably one of the reasons I became a writer, at least as much as good writing.

I bring up Aaron Sorkin because his dialogue in shows like The West Wing and Sports Night actually caused me to speak differently for sometimes hours after the show. The seasons that were not written by Sorkin are markedly different than those that are. It was TV shows like the later seasons of Babylon 5 that inspired me to tell long form Sci Fi narratives just as much as works like The Foundation Trilogy and Dune.

So what is this agent really complaining about?

It can’t be “too much dialogue” really because effective dialog is one of the best ways for characters to speak for themselves. It allows a character to demonstrate their traits, biases and opinions without a narrator having to tell us. Sure we know that in fiction dialogue should omit things like greetings, conversations where there is no conflict or moving along of the plot, and simple information dumps. But TV knows this too.

My wife and I are watching NCIS regularly now. The show does do “knowledge dumps”, usually after a commercial, summing up what just happened before the break, and analyzing what the characters know at this moment. Anyone who knows this show, however, knows that these scenes are just as much about the various characters demonstrating their own unique traits as it is telling the audience what is going on.

So TV knows how to write good dialogue, what about “scenes”?

This complaint seems even more esoteric, as what are books but collections of moments?  What’s different about a TV or Film “scene” that has no place in a literary book? I use the term “literary” because this agent emphasizes it. By his definition a book is “a published work of literature” emphasis on the last word.

How do we measure whether a book is “literary” or not? I understand the difference between genre and commercial fiction and “literary fiction”, but even in literature is it not necessary to “set the scene”, to have conflict? To me a “literary book” is a lot like an Oscar Winning movie, and genre fiction (mysteries, sci fi, romance, etc) is more like an Emmy winning TV show or movie. So this agent is looking for Oscar Winners. That’s fine. I’m trying to sell a mystery and then a Sci Fi novel, so this guy is obviously not a good fit.

But the attitude that TV influenced novelists produce bad fiction doesn’t ring true for me. There is a lot on TV that is bad, that is poorly written, that emphasizes stereotypes and that lowers rather than raises the intelligence of its audience.

But there are shows that know how to speak.

What other shows do you think have writing that rises to the level of what is “literary”? If you’re a writer, have you ever been inspired by something you have seen on TV? Is Leroy Jethro Gibbs awesome or what?


Filed under Writing

7 responses to “No “TV” Dialogue

  1. Chuck Conover

    While you have many good points …

    One take on this agents comments: Some novels are character studies such that if you took away the “internal” dialog, removed the internal voice of the character – there would be little left to use. (Look at how much page space Steven King can eat up simply to describe a sun rise!)

    Look at Ender’s Game – so much of the novel takes place in Ender’s head, that the author has had a mega hard time in transitioning his own book into a screenplay.

    This may point the way to what he means by literary.

    • Ben Trube

      That’s a good point, though I’m not exactly sure we want to defend how long Stephen King’s books are getting. I’m equally not saying that books “require” dialogue, but to conclude that books with “too much dialogue” are automatically bad doesn’t make sense to me.

  2. At first glance I’m not sure what to make of that comment either, but a little context might be useful. Was this in response to one of your submissions, or just something they put on their website/blog? If it’s the latter, how about a link?

    • Ben Trube

      In this particular case it was in their writer’s market entry so sadly no link. It was in the context of what they want to receive from submissions. No website either from what I could tell.

  3. I see what you’re saying here, and I agree that good TV has plenty of storytelling techniques that are very useful in novel writing. However, they are actually different media, and not all techniques are appropriate to both.

    Have you ever read a novel adaptation of a movie? (The opposite of a movie based on a book.) I’ve read a few in my time and they have all been, without question, terrible. When you turn a movie into a book, there are two options that you have:

    1. You can write down everything that happens in the movie, word for word.
    2. You can write the story using novel writing techniques, and thus have to change a lot of the scene structure and dialog.

    Let’s look at the first option, which is the style of writing (I presume) the agent is not looking for.

    In a move or TV show, there is no internalisation. (Unless there’s a voiceover). The characters show their internal thoughts through body language, facial expressions, and (sometimes) talking to themselves. This stuff is almost impossible to write into a scene without resorting to things like ‘Jane looked sad’ and ‘Marcus leaned agains the wall with cocky ease, folded his arms across his chest and smirked at Jane. “How do you like them apples?” he muttered under his breath.’

    On top of that, if you were to write down everything that happened in a scene from NCIS (for example), it would be 90% dialog. Because dialog is how things are revealed in TV shows. McGee stares at his computer for a while, then his expression changes and he says, “Boss, we’ve got a problem.” Tony looks up and says, “What is it, McGeek?” Then McGee explains what he’s found through dialog, before getting up and clicking on the magic TV. As pictures flash up there, he explains what every picture means in simple terms that vieweres will understand. That works great in the show. In fact, if you’re anything like me, you’ve just pictured the setting and the characters and the way they move and the way they talk, purely because you’re familiar with all those things.

    But if you’d never seen NCIS and were reading that exchange as part of a novel, you’d have no idea of where the characters are, what they’re doing, and why they insist on using dialog to explain the picture on the screen instead of relying more heavily on description. If you’re telling a story from McGee’s point of view, why have him tap away on the computer and then use exposition disguised as dialog to move the story forward, when we could more effectively go on the journey of discovery with McGee as he reads through the information, thus making the mental leaps for ourselves.

    Um. Right, this turned into a long, rambling response. Sorry. In conclusion, I would imagine that the agent doesn’t mean “don’t use TV shows as inspiration for voice, character, story reveals, etc.”. I would imagine the agent means, “don’t use TV storytelling techniques to tell your story when there are more effective techniques available. Otherwise I may as well be reading a screenplay.”

    • Ben Trube

      Thanks for the reply!

      I totally agree with you that novelizations of TV Shows, movies and even games are on the whole terrible.

      I have a feeling you’re right about what the agent really means, though the tone in which it was originally phrased may be due to being inundated with just such material (we may never know). I found the comment a little odd myself just because of how I visualize scenes in my book. Sometimes they play out as a little movie and I’d like to think that my work could be adapted to the screen at some point. Keyword “adapted”. Books and TV are different mediums, and you’re right that you use an entirely different set of tools to convey information in a book than on a screen.

      It just seems to me that “too much dialogue” is a very broad complaint, not as subtle and targeted as your summary. There are many reasons for long scenes of dialogue in a novel that are very different from the reasons for long scenes of dialogue in a TV show. I wish the agent had been more specific, since if you read the rest of the entry in Writer’s Market (International Transactions, Inc, they go on at length about many other opinions about the current state of the publishing industry. Suffice it to say, they weren’t gonna be my agent for many other reasons.

  4. “I visualize scenes in my book. Sometimes they play out as a little movie and I’d like to think that my work could be adapted to the screen at some point. ”

    I do this as well — in fact, I often work out what needs to happen next based on thinking it through like a movie. 🙂

    I agree about the wording, though. I guess if they were trying to reduce the number of queries they received, they’ve done a good job.

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