Writer’s toolkit: dialogue

The other week I received an email from Constable/Little Brown, who are publishing my series of crime novels based in Scarborough. The first one, A Wake of Crows, is due out on the 3rd of June this year. A Wake of Crows by Kate Evans | Hachette UK (littlebrown.co.uk) The email was to tell me that my novel will also be available as an audiobook. I am giddy with excitement.

With the email came extracts of my novel being read by two actors, so I could give my opinion. I have to say, it was unnerving to hear my words – so long only in my head – being spoken by someone else. Some of the characters sounded exactly as I had imagined them, others not so much. It was a bizarre experience.

Having my characters given ‘voice’ by someone else, brought me to thinking about writing dialogue.

Conversations with a barnacled man (Another Place by Antony Gormley, photo by Mark Vesey 2015)

In recent times, I have noticed a penchant amongst writers for direct speech in novels. Being a bit of a fan of indirect (or reported) speech in stories, I thought I might test the waters. In a completely unscientific poll on Facebook, I asked what other writers/readers thought. The overwhelming majority who responded said direct speech is the best. The main reasons given were it helps build the character voice and it gives pace.

The problem is, I still find pages and pages of direct speech dull. I think it actually slows down the pace because of this. Therefore, my first nugget of advice is get to love writing a mix of direct and indirect speech. Reported speech can still capture a character’s syntax and dropping in a phrase or two of direct speech can really focus the reader’s mind in on what is crucial. Useful in a crime novel, where the rule is ‘clues in plain sight’.

All writers should have big ears. Listen, listen, listen. Have a notebook at the ready to capture how people around you speak. Not only the words they use, but the rhythm and the pauses. Characters who come from a particular place and/or background, how would they speak? Research using the internet, if you can’t find a real person to ask. Don’t go for the cliché, but try and find the little something which distinguishes their turn of phrase.

Conversation Piece by Juan Munoz, South Shields. Photo by Mark Vesey.

When writing a dialogue, dive straight into it. In drafts, you may have to write about how the characters get together, about their initial small talk, but in later drafts, ask yourself, do I need all this? Edit, edit until you get to the bones of what the two people have to say to each other.

In real life, conversation has lots of purposes, one is to build relationships and help us to feel that we belong. This is why much of what we say is relatively superfluous to the action of our lives. In a novel, dialogue is a driver – for character building, for tension, for plot. If it’s not serving this function, then cut it or summarise it. Yes, when characters are getting to know each other, they may talk about all sorts of things, but the reader doesn’t need to know the detail.

We rarely speak in sentences. Dialogue should reflect this. The more taut the situation, the more jagged the dialogue. Short, unfinished phrases. Jumping from one speaker to the other. And don’t forget that body language forms part of human communication. It needs to be in the ‘dialogue’ too.

These are some of my thoughts. Here are some more:

Ten tips for writing dialogue | Viola Hayden | Discoveries – Curtis Brown Creative

I have to admit, hearing my characters on the extracts sent through for the audiobook, did make me wish I had followed the ‘rule’: speak you dialogue (or your writing in general) out loud). I will be doing more of that in the future.

Have you got thoughts you would like to share?

1 thought on “Writer’s toolkit: dialogue

  1. Pingback: Writer’s toolkit: editing | Scarborough Mysteries

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