1. rhduke
    Offline

    rhduke Contributing Member Reviewer

    Joined:
    Mar 15, 2013
    Messages:
    733
    Likes Received:
    158
    Location:
    Canada

    Why is military dialogue so cliche?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by rhduke, Apr 19, 2013.

    I'm writing a military short story set in WWII, but every time I write some conversation between soldiers, it sounds sooo damn trite, I can't stand it. On the other hand, it might be how they talked realistically back then. So I guess my real question is: is it alright to use cliched dialogue if it was realistically used back then?

    Some examples are like:

    "Yes, sir."

    "You understand me, private?"

    "What the hell are you doing soldier?"

    "Are you disobeying a direct order?"

    "Don't die on me soldier, stay with me."

    "I'm hit!"

    Also any sentence ending in "sir" annoys the shit out of me.


    I try to change it up and get the soldiers to say something unique, but it just sounds odd and unfitting for the time. What do you guys think? How would you handle it? Any insight is appreciated.
     
  2. peachalulu
    Offline

    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

    Joined:
    May 20, 2012
    Messages:
    3,829
    Likes Received:
    2,382
    Location:
    occasionally Oz , mainly Canada
    Could watch some old world war 2 movies unless that's where the cliches started.
     
  3. minstrel
    Online

    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 11, 2010
    Messages:
    8,724
    Likes Received:
    4,821
    Location:
    Near Los Angeles
    Soldiers are trained to use a specific vocabulary. They're also trained to say "sir" when speaking to a superior officer. Given that, it's hard to avoid cliches.

    If you're annoyed by sentences ending in "sir," maybe you shouldn't be writing a military story. It doesn't sound like your ideal subject matter.
     
  4. mbinks89
    Offline

    mbinks89 Active Member

    Joined:
    Nov 14, 2012
    Messages:
    551
    Likes Received:
    25
    Location:
    Montreal
    Hmm. Maybe try to inject some informalities? Not a lot, but just enough so it slips in. And maybe go by first names for some of it. I'm no soldier, but I'm writing about conquistadors in S. America now, and they're pretty informal and on a first name basis with one another. Then again, there's only thirteen of them and they've been together for months, so some friendship would have definitely developed and loosened boundaries with regards to names and what one can say, but they do all treat the captain, Lope, with respect, and sometimes refer to him as: "captain."
    Maybe try "what the hell are you doing?" and omit the "soldier." That's a given. And "I've been shot," or screaming, instead of, "I'm hit!"
    And I'd leave the "Don't die on me soldier," out altogether. Way too hackneyed. Unless it was more like: "Alonso. Alonso! Don't you fucking die!"
     
    1 person likes this.
  5. mbinks89
    Offline

    mbinks89 Active Member

    Joined:
    Nov 14, 2012
    Messages:
    551
    Likes Received:
    25
    Location:
    Montreal
    Try and imagine your characters as full-bodied people carrying with them emotional baggage and opinions (not saying you don't already), and not just as soldier archetypes. If all your soldiers were automatons, sure, they'd spout out those phrases. Give them some flair. Some personality. Make them cuss. Describe their body language. Have them mumble and mutter and all that.
     
  6. shadowwalker
    Offline

    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 27, 2011
    Messages:
    3,299
    Likes Received:
    851
    Yeah, "soldier speak" is pretty formalized, but that's when talking to superior officers they don't work directly with, I've found. With people within the unit, it's "Sarge" and "Cap" and "LT", and nicknames for people of the same rank (sometimes other ranks, like "Gunny"). My dad was a sergeant, older than the kids he handled, and they all called him Pops. Otherwise, their conversations shouldn't be any more cliched than any other - saying "I'm hit!" makes more sense to me than something more "poetic", for example. I don't imagine they're thinking of something unique to say instead of something to the point. My main concern when writing soldiers is staying away from too much jargon and acronyms. It's fine if you're writing only for soldiers, but a lot of civilians like reading those stories as well, and they shouldn't need a dictionary to do so.
     
  7. Cogito
    Offline

    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    May 19, 2007
    Messages:
    35,935
    Likes Received:
    2,043
    Location:
    Massachusetts, USA
    Do you know any veterans? Discuss it with them.
     
  8. TerraIncognita
    Offline

    TerraIncognita Aggressively Nice Person Contributor

    Joined:
    May 28, 2010
    Messages:
    1,339
    Likes Received:
    40
    Location:
    Texas
    I agree with this. Structure is vital in war and when you're training for war of course there's going to be strict rules. Soldiers are expected to fight that natural urge to run from danger and go straight into at the orders of another person. War is hell so the military is intense to prepare them for it. It takes a tremendous amount of courage and discipline. When you go up against an enemy you have to be a united front.
     
  9. gwilson
    Offline

    gwilson Member

    Joined:
    Mar 29, 2013
    Messages:
    66
    Likes Received:
    1
    Location:
    Houston, Texas
    I was in the Army when I was in my early 20s, and although I trained, I was never involved in combat.

    In your example dialog - I'm assuming that your private is talking with an officer, because of the 'sir'. When a private is talking to a sergeant you would not use 'sir' - I once said 'sir' to a sergeant and he responded, "Don't call me 'sir' - I work for a living."

    It might solve your 'sir' problem to have enlisted men talk to other enlisted, and have officers talk informally to other officers. Usually, a squad is lead by a sergeant, and that sergeant, not the common private, talks to the lieutenant - not to say that your example above is unrealistic, because in the heat of battle it's quite possible, maybe even probable, that an officer would console, and motivate, any one of his troops.

    I would suggest, also, that you read books in the military genre. In my history class in college we were required to read "If You Survive" by George Wilson (no relation :)). It's a true autobiographical account of an officer in WWII. And although there is virtually zero dialog in the book, it's still a good book to read.
     
  10. chicagoliz
    Offline

    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    May 30, 2012
    Messages:
    3,295
    Likes Received:
    815
    Location:
    Pennsylvania
    It may be stilted when taking orders from a higher officer, but it could get informal amongst the soldiers. Also, if a soldier is about to die, "soldier" might or might not be used. If the situation is that dire, it's *possible* he could be addressed by a name or nickname.

    Have you read Stephen Ambrose's books, particularly D-Day and Citizen Soldiers? I think they'd be helpful for informing your story.
     
  11. ChickenFreak
    Offline

    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 9, 2010
    Messages:
    8,969
    Likes Received:
    5,491
    For whatever reason, I find myself thinking of Battlestar Galactica. (The remake, not the decades-old original.) I don't find the dialogue stereotyped, and there's a lot of variety, from conversation between people at the same rank, to conversation between the lowest and highest ranked, and a lot of different levels of formality.
     
    1 person likes this.
  12. sanco
    Offline

    sanco Contributing Member

    Joined:
    Mar 4, 2013
    Messages:
    234
    Likes Received:
    17
    "Private Pyle, I'm gonna give you three seconds; exactly three fucking seconds to wipe that stupid looking grin off your face or I will gouge out your eyeballs and skull-fuck you!"
     
  13. blackstar21595
    Offline

    blackstar21595 Contributing Member

    Joined:
    Jan 21, 2013
    Messages:
    598
    Likes Received:
    34
    Location:
    Brooklyn,NY
    See here's the trick to dialogue. You have to make it seem realistic even if soldiers probably didn't say it. Even though they're soldiers, they all have different ways they speak. A great story for you to read is called "The Man I Killed" by Tim OBrien. It has a convo between two soldiers in it during Vietnam, and it sounded realistic to me even though soldiers probably didn't say it. So let's look at the lines you had.

    A commanding officer would say this to a lower ranked officer, but not formally. High ranks shit on low ranks. Maybe a high rank would say "You'll scrub the toilets if you don't do this." or "You f****** private. You have two jobs. Shoot and follow orders."

    Maybe change this to

    "Where's the bullet?" said the medic.
    "My arm..." said the wounded soldier. He pointed to his left arm.

    Hope that helps. And I'll PM you a link to the story.
     
  14. SwampDog
    Offline

    SwampDog Contributing Member

    Joined:
    Mar 5, 2013
    Messages:
    409
    Likes Received:
    108
    Location:
    Back in Blighty
    .
    Forces around the world will have a lot in common, so is difficult to ignore. Therefore, make your dialogue idiosyncratic - to a point.

    Most drill sergeants will:
    'See to it, Colour Sergeant Bourne.'
    He stamped his boot into the parade ground. 'Sah!'

    I'm hit = The bastard got me.

    Another thing with British forces is that threats of discipline are often conveyed using rank/rate and surname - not 'soldier' or 'sailor'.

    'Able Seaman Walsh! Get scrubbing that quarterdeck or you'll be up in front of the DO!' (Duty Officer.)
    'Yes, Chief.'

    And no officer has ever said to me, 'Are you disobeying a direct order?'
    They accept I have, and just say, 'You're in the shit. See the Master-at-Arms.'
     
  15. AVCortez
    Offline

    AVCortez Active Member

    Joined:
    Mar 13, 2013
    Messages:
    391
    Likes Received:
    22
    Location:
    Melbourne, Australia
    Watch full metal jacket and look at pretty much everything Hartman says... One of my all-time favourite characters. I watched it with my girlfriend the other day and wondered if you pitched the exact same script today, if it would get made.

    On a side note, military dialogue isn't really cliche, it just is what it is. If as many movies were made about anthropologists or something, the way they speak would become "cliche." Do a bucket load of research on terms they use, then incorporate those into dialogue written as you would say it.

    For example. If someone gets a hole blown in them, the other soldiers are going to say "man down" - This isn't a cliche, it's just what they say (assuming that is what they say, there might be a different term for a soldier who gets hit, I dunno). But if the sergeant is holding one of his men and says "don't you die on me," that is a cliche. Play with aspects of life, and family to try and come up with something original. I've come up with a couple on the spot but I'm sure they've been said before in one way or another. "Your ma didn't spend nine months carrying your worthless ass for you to die half way across the globe, private." - "See Jerry over there, he wants you to die, you want to make him happy?"

    For the hipster soldier: "Everybody dies, Jenkins, that's pretty f#$%ing mainstream. Now get up. You still owe me a latte."
     
    1 person likes this.
  16. sanco
    Offline

    sanco Contributing Member

    Joined:
    Mar 4, 2013
    Messages:
    234
    Likes Received:
    17
    ^ They don't make 'em like they used to.
     
  17. KaTrian
    Offline

    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 17, 2013
    Messages:
    5,566
    Likes Received:
    3,563
    Location:
    The Great Swamp
    Yeah, you'd definitely want to talk to real-life soldiers and/or vets. Though the lingo back in WWII was probably way different than nowadays, especially because it's unique to different branches and seems to be evolving all the time. In any case, a really great person to ask advice from writes this blog. She's a writer herself and an ex-soldier, so she knows pretty well how to transfer milspeak to fictional works.

    Also, what gwilson said. There're other differences than one letter between NCOs and COs. Oh, and even when talking to an officer, you wouldn't actually end your every sentence with a 'sir'...

    As for fictional inspiration. Check the miniseries, Generation Kill.
     
  18. mammamaia
    Offline

    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

    Joined:
    Nov 21, 2006
    Messages:
    19,316
    Likes Received:
    1,014
    Location:
    Coquille, Oregon
    soldiers were ordinary folks before they became cogs in the military machine... so they're going to be from cities, towns, villages from all parts of the country... and they'll be from every level of economic and social background, from varying ethnic origins... which means they'll each have their own local/regional way of talking, acting, thinking, etc.... those are the differences you need to incorporate into your dialog, so everyone won't be sounding the same...
     
    1 person likes this.
  19. Kendria Perry
    Offline

    Kendria Perry Member

    Joined:
    Mar 8, 2013
    Messages:
    68
    Likes Received:
    0
    Location:
    Florida, America's wang.
    If using constant profanity ≠ cliche, I'm all for cliche dialogue! :p
     
  20. rhduke
    Offline

    rhduke Contributing Member Reviewer

    Joined:
    Mar 15, 2013
    Messages:
    733
    Likes Received:
    158
    Location:
    Canada
    Wow thanks guys, awesome feedback..

    I watch a lot of war movies with my dad and the spoken dialogue from the soldiers doesn't bother me as much as it does on paper. Maybe I'm just being over critical..

    Actually, I really love wartime stories, especially the "bromance" side to it because its so endearing. There are just some pieces of dialogue that rub me the wrong way on paper, but somehow I feel it's my own fault for not fleshing out the scene visually and emotionally first.

    My grandfather was actually in the war but he passed away. My dad talks about his father and grandfather in the wars sometimes but nothing really specific. My dad said they never really liked to talk about it.

    I have to admit I never finished Full Metal Jacket, just because I didn't have the time to finish it. It's a great movie from what I saw.

    I was watching Band of Brothers and there's this scene where a guy is shot in the leg and the lieutenant holds him in his lap and says like "don't die on me, hang in there." Watching it wasn't really cliche to me, I was more caught up in the emotion of the scene. If that scene was written in a book, I feel like the "clicheness" would be more prominent. I think about what I would say in that situation. Here's a soldier in my arms who I've known for 2 years, I feel like it would be natural to say something like that. But then there's the trends in literature that accuses it of being cliche. This is why I feel torn between what I feel is natural for people to say and the "be original" agenda in fiction.

    That's useful advice thanks.

    Thanks to everyone else, you opened my mind on the matter. I think I'll post some excerpts from the story in a bit.
     

Share This Page