Writing dialogue is really difficult. I realised this on the very first ‘writing’ course I went on. One of our tutors was Louise Doughty, a skilled teacher as well as a great writer. She gave us the transcript of an actual overheard conversation to look at, and made her point quite easily that the authentic spoken word is often unintelligible in the written form. The transcript was littered with repetitions, unfinished phrases, interruptions, and other distractions that made it almost impossible to read or make sense of. It illustrated the jerky, random thought process which underpinned the articulation we were reading on the page, which was authentic but unhelpful to the reader. Our task was to take this original transcript and edit it so that the meaning was sustained but the speech was still digestible: it was a difficult but very useful lesson to learn, and if I were teaching anyone to write dialogue I would do the same.
In my own writing I use speech and dialogue extensively and for a variety of purposes; to drive the narrative, to illustrate relationship, and to add to our understanding of a character and their state of mind. That’s a big ask. The structure of a person’s speech can illuminate what we know about them: think of Jane Austen’s characters and how much we learn about them by the way they speak and the words and phrases they use. In fact, almost all we know about Austen’s people we gather through speech rather than description. I try to see and hear my characters speaking and build what I see and hear into the words on the page. Some of the nuances of what is meant as well as what is said are hard to capture without use of adverbs or more explicit ‘speech verbs’ such as ‘murmured’ or ‘explained’ that sound clunky and used sparingly.
When it comes to the second draft, I have to speak the text out loud, and frequently change the dialogue at that stage, to make it sound more more like the spoken rather than the written word. The two are quite different, and I notice in my reading that some authors don’t seem to recognise this. Their characters speak with too much complexity, in sentences that are too finely crafted to sound authentic. Of course it’s a struggle. Sometime you sacrifice narrative clarity to authenticity and hope that the reader will not notice, or forgive you.
In the third part of my trilogy, ‘Fallout’, some of the action takes place inside the nuclear plant at Windscale (as Sellafield was known then) during the reactor fire of October 1957. All the characters we see and hear in those scenes are male, with a science or engineering background and intensely focussed on the task at hand. Their patterns of speech must be – and are – completely different than conversations taking place in the home or the shop or at the Friday night dance at the club. You should be able to hear in their voices the tension they are feeling and their intense concentration on the crisis they face. What they don’t say is as important as what they do. I enjoyed writing those chapters after weeks of detailed research and thought about what it would have been like in that place at that time. I rolled it past someone with a similar background and experience to see if he felt it sounded authentic, and took his advice. I think it’s not bad: you’ll have to judge for yourself when the book appears in June. In the meantime I’ll keep working on dialogue, hoping to improve with practice and experience.