Listening In

There’s nothing better than a great bit of dialogue. Done well, it can impart subtleties of character, convey plot, and really add to the pace an energy of a scene. Done badly, and, well, it does the exact opposite. Just like an episode of Dawson’s Creek, put the wrong words in your character’s mouth and they come across sounding at best, emotionally mature beyond their years (which made for a great drinking game idea) or at worst, so cheesy that they cease to be believable and the sense of immersion in your story is lost. So how the hell do you do it? To learn from the pros, here are a couple of examples from great books I’ve read recently in which the dialogue just leaps off the page.

May We Be Forgiven, by A. M. Holmes:

A young cop shows up. “You okay?”

I nod.

“We got a call about a crying man?”

“Is that illegal?”

“No, but you don’t see much of that round here, especially this time of year. Home from work?”

“Laid off, and the exterminator is in the house today, and they asked me to leave. Park seemed like the place to go.”

“Most people go shopping.”

White Noise, by Don DeLillo

“How do you know so much?”

“I’m from New York.”

“The more you talk the sneakier you look, like you’re trying to put something over on us.”

“The best talk is seductive.”

“Have you ever been married?”

For us mere mortals, one way of capturing truly authentic dialogue can be by snooping on your fellow human beings. Like most writers, I have various notebooks and bits of paper stuffed about my person/in my handbag/by the bed/next to the toilet (ok, not really, but considering my recent bout of gastroenteritis it might not have been a bad idea) just in case that searing flash of brilliance catches me with my pants down, so to speak. More often than not I find myself doing little character sketches of people around me or jotting down little lines of speech when people are having a conversation. Admittedly this might make me look a little weird, but I have a whole section in my ‘notes’ app on my phone, so hopefully it looks like I’m playing Candy Crush, and most of the time I try very hard not to stare at people or ask them to speak up while I’m doing it.

Whilst word-for-word conversation when written down can seem stilted and downright odd, what I so often find difficult when giving my characters speech is that it all too often sounds a bit generic. Specificity is what really brings individuals to life, gives them a real sense of existing in the reader’s mind. The stuff that people talk about I just wouldn’t think of, like the woman having a ten-minute conversation about a chair she was loathe to buy for an elderly relative, or the tale of someone’s disgusting late-night snack of melting cheese onto a plate and then cutting up pepperami into it.

And frankly, it’s fun. Even if I never use some of the ideas, it still gives me a laugh, or a second thought, or an insight into the human mind that is so important for an empathetic writer to have. So here, in no particular order, are my Top 5 favourite overheard conversations:

5: Tough Love

“Why do you think people don’t like you?”

“They don’t like you either.”

“You’re mean.”

“Eighteen grand? You call that mean?”

“That’s a pay off. You’re pathetic.”

“I didn’t have to do it.”

“You need to take responsibility for your own shit, mum. You’re pathetic.”

4: Parenting

“She woke up crying about cannibals. What did you tell her?”

“We were reading the BFG.”

“What did you say?”

“That some people far away did it and some were crazy people. I didn’t want to lie to her. Have you lied to her?”

“Of course. She doesn’t need to know that. She asked me if all rich people were evil.”

“And?”

“She said if money didn’t exist no-one would be poor.”

“Maybe she’ll join Greenpeace and save the world.”

3: Making Friends

“You want to get to know them, but they want to get to know you. That’s not really the same thing.”

“Some people just want to study, they don’t want to.”

“I think they’re in a kind of group, they don’t really want to, they’ve decided.”

“I think she’s quite young. She’s 18.”

“You know if you understand more.”

“Exactly.”

“Gosh it’s all. Isn’t it?”

2: Hidden Depths

“How are you?”

“Not so good today. Can I just have my juice to take away?”

“You’re not coming in later?”

“I won’t manage it.”

“That’s ok, you just let me know.”

“You’ve got a lovely tan.”

“It was so hot, we were lying down a lot.”

“It’s horrible. England’s horrible.”

“Have a good day.”

1: Who You Know

“I’m jut worried.”

“She’s done this sort of thing before.”

“You never know if they’re any good.”

“I know the royal gynaecologist. She must be good.”

So, give it a go. Next time you’re stuck for a pithy bit of dialogue, try nosing in on those around you for a bit of inspiration. How do you write your dialogue? Share your comments below.

Ok, one more, just for fun:

“English people fart like that. Do you fart like that?”

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I'm a writer, teacher and drummer based in London. Short fiction and reviews are my main staples, along with some dabbling in novel writing.

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