Dialogue is the hardest aspect of fiction to get right, realistic and relevant. Yet it’s the pivotal mechanism that gives life to characters and drives along the narrative and plot. It’s essential in a compelling, attention-grabbing novel to avoid producing wooden, pompous or dull conversations which jar on the reader, argue with the character’s personality, and contribute nothing to the development of the tale.
One key task for any aspiring writer is to read how other writers successfully reproduce dialogue in their novels. I would add a second task. I find, as a TV and movie buff, that listening to dialogue particularly in soap operas is incredibly enlightening. I have no truck with critics who claim that soaps are trash. They are a tremendeous, fun example both of great acting and of great script writing, and the spring board for some very successful TV and movie writers.
In a soap the action is brought to us entirely through the reactions and words of a cast of characters. The drama, arguments, fights, accidents, love affairs, tragedies, comedic moments, have all come through those characters’ personae and through their mouths. If you listen carefully there are rare occasions when the script writers don’t get it entirely right and you are entitled to criticise and to learn from that. One example that always strikes me is how many dramatised mothers call their children by their name, instead of say ‘darling’ or ‘honey’. I’m not talking about soppiness. I’m talking about natural affection. It’s rare in my life to hear kids addressed without some kind of endearment. My own kids have all manner of names, some of which I’m trying to shed now that they’re pushing teenage-hood. My sisters and I were only addressed by our full names when our parents were angry. The rest of the time we were known as The Buns or The Pickles which in itself is a long story..
Ditto couples and lovers. Watch how they address each other on screen, and ask yourself if that’s realistic. ~Why not be an armchair critic!
Sometimes after watching a film or programme I have been particularly moved by I find myself writing dialogue like characters I have just been watching. If I was teaching a creative writing course, I would perhaps get my students to write a scene in the manner of say EastEnders or Silent Witness or Mad Men, or Downton Abbey.
So, back to the writing. The fourth exercise I recommend to writers is to read out loud the dialogue they’ve written – or with a very patient friend – so as to see if it’s realistic. But the final exercise for writing dialogue came to me today as a brain wave after my nine year old son described his English test. It occurred to me that it would be a brilliant exercise to give aspiring writers in a workshop scenario, where there’s a classroom feeling and also the opportunity to see how others achieve it and what they think of your efforts.
Basically take the outline of a story or a play, a film, perhaps a newspaper article. It doesn’t have to be particularly dramatic or interesting or creative or artistic. In fact the challenge would lie in taking one that wasn’t obviously fascinating, such as a financial report or a scientific discovery. Because the exercise is then to bring that piece of writing, that chunk of information, to life. Using only dialogue. This could be done as an interview, say a radio interview, but that risks coming across as too stilted or formal. Nevertheless, it would be a good vehicle for regurgitating the information in a different format. Another way would be to have two or three characters talking about the incident/contents of the report/scientific discovery, telling each other what it involves, what they think of it, what it might mean. They could be personally involved, or they could be observers.
Either way the challenge is to take a story or factual report written as prose, and turn it into a conversation.
See my own short stories ‘Stabbing the Rain’ on Amazon. Short stories are often thought of as more musing, introspective prose pieces, but perhaps because of my love of televised drama, I tend to use dialogue a lot because I can hear the characters. I can also see them on screen, perhaps in a Hollywood version of my work. With Julianne Moore playing me!
Well, we can always dream! Here is the link to my stories: