On…. dialogue

I’ve been thinking about dialogue. I really LOVE writing dialogue. If I ever feel stuck, I just start writing conversations between my characters. It’s like a creative enema: it unblocks everything. I love working out how characters speak; their attitude and humour and syntax and slang; how the structure of a sentence can change the entire meaning behind it… And so on.

In fact, when I’m writing – or, rather, when I’m writing easily – I can hear their voices in my head. Like a play.

Then the other day I couldn’t find my iPod. I hadn’t seen it in weeks. I think I had it on holiday, but now – vamoosed. ‘Oh, well,’ I thought. ‘C’est perdu. I guess I should get another one, though it’s funny how I never listen to it when I’m out and about anymore.’

And then I realised: it’s because I eavesdrop instead.

I do. All day. I’m a conversation scavenger, a tidbit collector, a little magpie for bon mots. I don’t know when I started, but it’s been at least a year. And in the past 12 months, I’ve hit a creative purple patch. (I’ll tell you more about all the things I’ve been growing in said purple patch if they ever flower.) And I think the two are directly related.

I think listening to an iPod essentially puts the pause button on my engagement with the outside world. No daydreaming, no idle observations and ponderings and wonderings… those are the times when I get ideas. And eavesdropping is part of that.
I listen to people on phones (“And then she said you obviously deserved it, and I said, that is completely unfair,”). I listen to conversations on buses (“I’m going to text him at like, 9 o’clock and say, hi, in case you lost my number, this is Janey from Saturday. Just casual, you know?” “Yeah… or, don’t”). I LOVE IT.

Eavesdropping gives tiny glimpses into people’s lives and relationships… it makes me think about human nature, and(apologies, cockeyed-optimist-type comment incoming) it really makes me love humanity. People are so funny and genuine and warm. Except, of course, those exceptionally annoying people who speak with the deliberate intention of being overheard (“We don’t talk with our mouth full, do we Andrew? Andrew! Listen to mummy, please! People will think we were dragged up!”).

Most of all, eavesdropping makes me think about how character can be revealed through dialogue.

One day last week, in the French Connection commission at Selfridges, I heard this very intense conversation take place between three girls, aged about 24.

Girl 1: The black dress. With the shoulders. But dressed up.
Girl 2: Really? Dressed up? With what?
Girl 1: You know… spangles.
Girl 2: Or the sequined skirt? Maybe?
Girl 1. Yeah, that would look amazing on you.
Girl 3: Sequins will cut your arse when you sit down.

And then they moved on and I snickered to myself, looking like quite the mad old bat. If I wrote that word-for-word, it’s funny. But if I was to transcribe it into a story, I might tweak it a bit to communicate character/intonation a bit more. I’d add ‘Trust me’ to Girl 3, as she really sounded experienced in the sequin-arse matter. And I might add ‘ooo yes’ to preface both of Girl 2’s lines, as it helps to establish how naive and excited she sounded (what event were they shopping for? Who knows. Hopefully something awesome).

Did you know that writing guides – for books and screenplays, ackshuary – say you should use adverbs (ie words that describe how people are saying what they’re saying – or doing, for that matter, but let’s stick with saying for the time being) as rarely as possible? Interesting, huh. Apparently it’s amateurish. Every now and again it’s probably necessary, but when a character is described as, for example, saying something ‘goofily’ then ‘merrily’ then ‘jokingly’ then ‘impishly’ on the same page, it’s overegging the dialogue pudding.

I guess their point is that the content, ie WHAT they’re saying, should be goofy/merry/joking/impish. That’s also, when you think about it, a sign of strong characters and story (if you already know the person is merry and in a merry mood, which you should, they’ll obviously speak merrily). I’m not sure if it’s something one should never do, though. After all, Jilly Cooper does it now and again, and she is awesome.

I worry that I probably overegged the dialogue pudding in THE DATING DETOX, but I can’t bear to open the darn thing and check. The dialogue in A GIRL LIKE YOU (out in six weeks! woo) is better, I hope, or at least it should be: I was a bit obsessed with dialogue by then, and checked every line a thousand times.

Anyway, I must dash. I have eavesdropping to do.

EDIT: I started reading Stephen King’s On Writing yesterday, which is brilliant, and this morning on the bus read the chapter where he talks about this very same issue. He says ‘the road to hell is paved with adverbs’. Which is veh amusing.

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3 thoughts on “On…. dialogue

  1. Keris

    On my way out of Starbucks once, I was just walking past a middle aged couple when I heard the woman say, "… masturbating in the en-suite…" I stopped dead with my ears, erm, cocked, but I couldn't think of an excuse to stay and hear the rest. It made me so happy though.

    Also heard one side a brilliant phone conversation on the train, along the lines of: "Stop crying. You're okay. It's okay. Is there a lot of blood? Well just get some loo roll, wet it and stuff it in the hole. Okay?" EVERYONE on the train was gagging to know what it was. Thankfully the woman then rang her husband – she'd been talking to her daughter whose tooth had fallen out.

  2. L.C. Griffith

    I love that book. It has helped me to keep my writing straight forward and simple. Less is more-most of the time.
    I love eavesdropping too. I also love observing people, their clothes, hair, nuances, every little tid bit of them. I jot down the things that "hit" me for future use. Being a writer is all consuming and I love it, but I feel a little bit like a predator lol!


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