Greetings all. This is my second attempt at this posting as I inexplicably managed to delete the first one about a minute after I’d uploaded. Don’t ask me how as I have no idea, but in the interests of being positive, I am (after several minutes of swearing and teeth-gnashing) banking on Take 2 being an improvement. This is in fact what happened when I inadvertently managed to delete half my English Lit ‘A’ Level dissertation the night before it was due in. I had written it in WordPerfect 5.1 on my mum’s 386 laptop (this was millions of years ago you understand) and when it asked me whether I wanted to save changes, I said ‘no’. The perfect logic being applied was that I wanted to save ALL of it, not just the changes.
Anyway, I digress. The purpose of this posting was to share with you my thoughts on writing dialogue, as indeed the title suggests. In doing so I am aware that the writing on this here blog has all been short stories with in most cases little or no dialogue. However, this is not all. No indeed not. Whilst the shorts provide instant gratification (to me if not to anyone else) in the background I am toiling away on a longer piece. It’s actually my second novel-length effort though I confess the first has not yet seen the light of day. That little, ahem, gem remains languishing on an external hard drive in all its chick-lit glory waiting for my loving ministrations once more. Why? Well, I got to within a chapter of the end and decided I didn’t like the second half. However, neither was I enthused about the prospect of a re-write of 40,000 words, so there it remains. Oh, and I know I said chick-lit, but really it’s a Suffolk Borders Aga Saga with a dash of Formula 1 and a Love Rat ™. I can see it now, emblazoned on the nice shiny dust jacket enticing in the weary masses as they trudge through Terminal 5….
So, to dialogue. The point of telling you about the unfinished not-chick-lit thingy is that probably the best bits of the first 40,000 words – and indeed the passable bits of the aforementioned second 40,000 – take the form of meaningful conversations between characters. Even after all these years, they’re still really real in my head. In general terms, it’s great dialogue that really introduces the reader to the complexities of the characters, creating empathy and bringing them to life. This in turn is what makes people truly fall in love with a story, even physically missing the protagonists when the book is ended.
It is for this reason that building great characters is the most important part of the writer’s work. Why do I think this when we’re talking here about dialogue? Well, the better your characters are, the more likely they are to do the work for you and deliver something truly authentic. Developing great characters is all about really knowing them in all their mundanity and all their flawed human excellence. You know their height, weight and hair colour; what they had for breakfast; their favourite colour, record, TV show; what they do of an evening; which side of the bed they prefer; their parents’ names; their views on Marmite and so on. Even if this information doesn’t make it into the book (and I sincerely hope that some of it doesn’t) you nonetheless know it. It’s a critical part of the set-up.
OK, so how does the dialogue actually happen? For me it’s like this:
1. Know your characters inside and out. Know them so well that you could almost reach out and touch them. Make sure they’re that clear for you, even if you hate them. You are giving them life.
2. Set your scene. Where are your talkers? Are they indoors or outside? What’s the space like? Are they sitting or standing? Is there a table? What’s it made of? What colour are the walls? Are there windows?
3. Unless you’re feeling very brave or experimental, or alternatively are stuck for plot detail, make sure you Know Your Outcome. What does the dialogue need to deliver? What purpose will it serve?
4. Once you have set everything up, step back a little, shrink down to about the size of a housefly, find a discreet place to park up and….listen.
That’s it. Really. If you’ve followed all the other steps, your characters will pretty much just start to talk. The best part is that you can pause them, slow them, speed them up and even rewind them. They won’t notice. All you need to do is listen carefully and take dictation. You probably won’t even need to interrupt.
Once you have the hang of this, it should be quite easy and you may even get bits of dialogue pop up when you’re not actively engaged in writing. When this happens I jot down the key bits in my ever-present notebook or sometimes take an audio recording on the phone, just reading out what’s in my head. Now and again I’ll get snippets of dialogue from known characters that have nothing whatsoever to do with the book. An example of this is in the short story ‘Sacrifice’ which together with its twin forms an earlier post on here. The comments I’ve had are about the emotional impact that just a few lines of text can have. Though little detail is revealed about the nature of the protagonists, I know them – and this is what makes their words authentic.
I think that’s just about it for now. If you’re a writer, I hope it’s useful. If you’re not, I hope it’s interesting. If you have another approach, I’d love to hear about it.