Conversation on the page fascinates me.
Even when I’m writing an email, describing a recent meeting to a mutual friend, for instance, I find myself overtaken by the desire to report the real words one or both of us spoke.
I hear it, of course, as I’m transposing it. Or at least, I am hearing what I remember. But does my reader hear it? And hear it in the same way?
Conversation off the Page
Unwritten conversation very often kicks off a story of mine. I will be elsewhere, not even be thinking about writing, and my imagination will pluck something out of the whirlwind and give it to me. And I know there is more —and the more is a story.
It’s almost like eavesdropping. Even a bit spooky sometimes.
For instance – I was once dozing gently in someone else’s garden. We’d had a good lunch and lot of laughter and she had gone inside to make tea. The other two were talking and I was looking at a couple of apple trees and not paying attention to anything much.
And a voice in my head said, “I can never forget it.”
It was so real it made me jump, even though I knew it was my imagination on the other end of the line.
It was a male voice. But I was quite certain it was not a human one. It sounded angry and sad and sort of resigned. As if it wasn’t really surprised, and knew it should have taken better care.
I sat bolt upright and wrote it down in the notebook I always carry. Though I knew I needn’t really have written it down. Something that strong isn’t going to go away. It was more a sort of promise that I would find out whatever story that was part of.
Conversation on the Page and Character’s Expectations
This week, there was a fascinating half hour on BBC Radio 4 in which James Runcie (of Grantchester) interviewed Booker Prize-winner Anne Enright on the “role of dialogue in story-telling”.
To be truthful, I’ve never felt particularly at home with the books of either author. So I was intrigued to hear how they thought about conversation in their own and other people’s work.
Runcie starts by saying, “Conversations change lives.”
I can only agree. They are the start of so many of my stories, that we are clearly at one there.
However he goes on to contrast a character’s expectations of a conversation with the path it actually takes. He illustrates his point from Pride and Prejudice. Jane Austen shows Mrs Bennet insisting that her husband instructs Lizzie to marry the oleaginous Mr Collins. Accordingly he Speaks To Lizzie, in fatherly mode. The scene culminates, of course, in one of the great punch lines of fiction.
“An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr Collins and I will never see you again if you do.”
How long did she labour over her little bit of ivory to achieve that perfection of balance, precision and poignard?
Conversation on the Page must be Crafted
Anne Enright goes even further in this discussion. It’s not just punch lines that need careful preparation and structure.
She points out that most spontaneous conversation is a mess in real life. People trail off, interrupt each other and themselves, even forget what they were going to say. The novelist has to craft conversation, therefore, “like Restoration Comedy” to make it sound both spontaneous and clear and carrying the plot forward.
I agree with that too. Let the mess flow freely, and you risk losing your reader. That’s dangerous – possibly for both of you.
Natural or Unnatural?
So here’s the dilemma. Can you make something sound natural, yet at the same time lose all the white noise that emerges when people are responding spontaneously.
Yes, if you’re careful and keep the natural rhythms you have already established for that character. And especially if you’ve got a good line. (How often have I said of Austen, Wodehouse and T Pratchett, “If I had written that, I would die a happy woman”!
Does Mr Bennet sound natural? Even allowing for the differences of both formality and vocabulary between the Austen and Bennet families and our own, Mr Bennet doesn’t sound exactly spontaneous here.
But of course, he wouldn’t, would he? A man who is capable of saying, “I have not the happiness of understanding you,” is one who is going to prepare his put down with intelligence and care.
And it is so pleasingly neat that we ignore the lack of spontaneous feeling. He’s putting the knife in and he’s enjoying it. Oscar Wilde would have applauded him.
So it’s wholly in character. And not very kind to Mrs Bennet, or even Lizzie who is being asked to accept mockery of her mother and side against her too.
Not well done, Mr Bennet. Not well done at all.
Conversation on the Page: what prompted that?
The point about a conversation is that people speak and someone else responds. In my first example I heard, “I can never forget it.” And I knew it was conversation. Of course, it could have been someone talking to himself. But I knew it was not a statement but an answer.
The answer came to me, but not until I had three characters, a local habitation and a name. As I wrote the scene I knew that it was coming. But I had no idea to whom he would say it or when. Or even wholly why. But I knew it would.
And I’ve set it out below, for sake of completeness. Also this is to show that while craft is important, so is the integrity of your story. I didn’t plan this. But once I started to write, the subconscious impulse fell into step and that bit of dialogue emerged just as it ought. And no, I don’t know exactly where the story will go in the end. It isn’t finished yet.
That Scene With Dialogue Evolved
Then he picked up the little drawstring bag, fastidiously, as if he could hardly bear to have it in his mouth. He padded over to me and dropped it at my feet.
“Destroy this foul thing. And never do anything like that again.”
It sounded a bit more hopeful, somehow. I blew my nose – I had found a handkerchief, at last; the pocket had worked its way right round to my other side – and said, “Does that mean you’ll forget about it?”
That’s what my father used to say, when he told me I wasn’t in trouble. “Forget about it, sweetness,” he would say.
I wanted the dog fox to say, “Forget it, sweetness,” so hard it hurt.
But he said, “I can never forget it.”
I was disappointed. More than disappointed. Heartbroken, for some reason.
He looked angry.
“I am in your debt. I am not allowed to forget.”
Conclusion: craft is good; but don’t tear yourself to bits over it; instinct is good, too.
A subject close to my heart. Conversation tells the story and is often misused. It’s tricky to get it right, sometimes without assuming the reader will understand the meaning by some form of osmosis. And punctuation is key – hopefully, it tells the reader HOW the words are spoken. Very necessary when writing dialogue for the stage. And I love Mr Bennet’s little speech – the perfect punchline.
And my own punctuation went a little off there, didn’t it?
I was putting it down to fat finger syndrome, Lesley. Have fiddled with it. Hope the Sophie-revised version was what you mean.
I’m sure writing dialogue for the stage helps make the conversation in your books sound so natural and spontaneous Lesley.
I think Jane Austen’s was always more measured – and an awful lot of it is sort of reported speech, often in the passive voice. But then that was probably the decorum of her class as much as a deliberate literary convention.
Absolutely love that little piece of dialogue at the end and really want to read the story. Yes, it’s interesting how one has to craft dialogue to read with fluency and yet sound natural. I do enjoy creating interruptions though, where one character keeps on speaking and the other is trying to edge a word in and failing. It makes for good pacing and is very useful in comedy. Reminded of it because I’m editing a reverted book right now which has quite a bit of that as the h/h are frequently at loggerheads.
Austen is so good at those barbed speeches. I doubt Mrs Bennet gets it, reprehensible though it is of Mr B. I wonder how much is careful crafting though? If the story comes “white-hot from her ready pen” (as in Phoebe of Sylvester fame), I think the dialogue almost writes itself. Or is that a leftover from my years on the stage perhaps?
I think you’re another natural writer of dialogue, Liz. Had forgotten your acting credits. Yes, I’m sure that makes a difference.
In my opinion, P G Wodehouse’s dialogue became much punchier once he started writing musical comedies with Guy Bolton.
In fact, I also think it affected his whole writing style, very much for the better, though that is probably more controversial. And it may have happened anyway, as he edged away from school stories and residual classroom humour, heavily classical as that was at the time in the public schools of Britain.