Let’s face it…we never shut up.
We don’t though, do we? Morning, noon and night we are all yammering away. This happened, that happened, he said, she said. I’ll tell you what…you’re joking…give me a break…
Non stop noise all day long.
So with all that practise, being steeped in wall to wall research for our entire lives, how come writing dialogue can be so difficult?
You can have the best characters, a plot that knocks spots off “Rebecca”, a turn of phrase that makes James Lee Burke seem prosaic. But this is all for nothing if, when your hero or villain opens their mouth to speak, they end up sounding like a cliché, or worse, out of place.
It’s the stuff that gives writers nightmares, and for my money, is probably the hardest part of writing to conquer.
We all have lines of dialogue that have stuck with us, from books, movies, even the odd TV show. With a beautiful economy of language they can belt us with various emotions.
Laughter…Niles talking to his brother Frasier Crane on the TV sitcom. Frasier as usual is protesting his innocence in some dreadful situation of his own making “Frasier, shouldn’t you make a beeping noise when you back up like that?”
Terror…Roy Scheider to Robert Shaw in “Jaws”…”You’re gonna need a bigger boat”.
And If you get it really on the money it can even convey an entire book in one line, as Elmore Leonard did with this character line in his novel “Glitz” – “Wonderful things can happen”, Vincent said, “when you plant seeds of distrust in a garden of assholes.”
Elmore Leonard (bows head and acknowledges genius) was the ultimate king of dialogue in my humble opinion. In his very helpful “10 Rules of Writing” he talks about John Steinbeck’s admission
“I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks…”
Wow! No pressure there then…make the characters sound authentic…and give a sense of what they look like all at the same time. No mean feat.
When writing my own book London Interrupted, I had this front of mind. I especially applied it to the villain of the piece, Harkness. He is part psychopath, part narcissist. He loves the sound of his own voice, likes to hold forth passing on pearls of wisdom and quoting great thinkers and leaders of history. He does this for two reasons. One I wanted him to sound grandiose, so that you always knew when he was in the room (he likes it that way too) and secondly I wanted the reader to know that he quotes these various luminaries because it is obvious he believes himself to be their equal. Well I did say he is a narcissist.
I’ll leave it you to see if you think I did a good enough job or not but I do have to admit the few times my editor KT liked or laughed at a line of my dialogue I did a mini power grab celebration in my head.
One invaluable tool I found in creating credible dialogue is a game I like to play when walking almost anywhere in public. “Snatches of caught conversation” is one of my very favourite past times. If you leave your iPod headphones out and take a stroll, you’ll be amazed at the snippets (often very funny in isolation) that you can pick up. Some of my own personal favourites include a woman on Oxford Street declaring to her female companion “He’s just entirely obsessed with my toes…”. Another favourite was the day in Soho when I witnessed two guys passing a bar with a bouncer outside on the door. One of them nodded towards the security man and in a half laugh half whisper declared “If only I could take the weight…”
Real life can point the way with dialogue…it’s just about having your ears open and creating your characters with confidence. If you believe in them, make them real in your mind’s eye, their voices should follow on behind hopefully. I have “borrowed” speech patterns and turns of phrase from real life, but only when they reflect the character who uses them. But still…it’s bloody difficult.
I’ll leave the last word to Elmore…he was way better at all of this anyway:
“I’m very much aware in the writing of dialogue, or even in the narrative too, of a rhythm. There has to be a rhythm with it … Interviewers have said, you like jazz, don’t you? Because we can hear it in your writing. And I thought that was a compliment.”
I don’t like jazz…but I do very much like Elmore Leonard and almost every word of dialogue he ever wrote…