Dreadful Downton dialogue

I watched Downton Abbey the other night, for the first time. Before that, my only contact with it had been sitting next to Hugh Bonneville in the Business Class lounge at Los Angeles airport, and that was only because Air NZ lost my luggage for nine days on the way out and had to give me enough points for an upgrade. That’s a tale for another day.

Anyway, Downton Abbey, the finale. Oh dear. I wasn’t sorry I hadn’t seen the rest of it. Being charitable, perhaps the dire script was the inevitable outcome of the scriptwriter’s mission impossible – tying up far too many storylines in one episode, as well as fitting in the obligatory set pieces complete with valedictory one-liners and extravagantly costumed extras by the bus load. Poor bugger. I hope he’s lying in a darkened room, or on a beach somewhere far away from a television.

The whole affair was an object lesson in what happens when dialogue carries too much plot. ‘Oh hello, Fanny/Cedric/ whoever, I haven’t seen you since Lady X ran off with the butcher and then we all went hunting and Albert broke his leg. How are you?’ ‘Very well, thanks, and so much better since I recovered from that bout of flu in Episode 6 which nearly killed me and made me realise that life Is short and I had to divorce Dierdre before my fiftieth birthday.’ Fortunately, as I watched this farago I had a DA veteran in the room to answer my queries, although she was annoyed by my irreverent approach. ‘But it used to be good,’ she maintained stoutly. ‘This is just the end.’ Oh it was, it was.

Imagine my surprise when serious Tweets the following day praised everything I’d found risible. ‘Wasn’t it wonderful how they managed to tie up all the story lines so neatly,’ the DA fans purred, as if this was a good thing. I could only surmise that tying up every loose end was a genre protocol which had been slavishly followed, at the cost of any dramatic authenticity. Characters and plot were all left hopelessly two-dimensional, however well they may have been portrayed in the past. I suspect the actors knew they had became caricatures of themselves: maybe they wept quietly into the post-production champagne.

Many years ago, in the very first course I did on ‘How to write a novel’ (Arvon, 2007, at The Hurst) Louise Doughty spent a couple of hours on dialogue, which I’ve never forgotten. First she gave us a transcript of actual conversation, including every non-sequitur, hesitation and repetition – which was almost impossible to read. Then we had another example of the kind I’ve alluded to above: ‘Oh hello George, how good to meet you on a lovely day with the bluebells unfurling into spring sunshine etc’ which was as unnaturally ghastly as many of the lines in the DA finale.

The desired path is somewhere between the two, of course, and hard to navigate. Dialogue needs to be read aloud by the writer, because spoken conversation differs in so many respects from the written form: very few complex sentences, some hesitation and repetition, and many contextual details taken for granted, which the writer has to supply by other means. The writer can indicate the tone of voice by adverbs, or variations on ‘said’, but most of them sound clunky. The reader has to be helped to keep track of who’s speaking, without the luxury of seeing who is doing so.

As part of the initial ‘character studies’ that I develop when someone new is introduced, I try to hear how they will talk. What kinds of verbs and metaphors might the person use? Do they have any characteristic phrases, interesting in themselves and also indicative of a state of mind? Do they interrupt others during conversation or listen carefully and respond? Do they think before they speak, or put a foot in it occasionally, and how will this affect those around them? I’m sure every good scriptwriter will do the same, until and unless the demands of the plot get in the way, as they did at Downton Abbey over Christmas.


Can you teach someone how to write fiction?

There was such a huge response to my post on the question ‘Can you teach writing?’ that I decided to add some more, so here it is. I didn’t make this stuff up: I learned it from my own painful experience, and from great guides like Andrew Pyper, Matthew Hall and William Ryan, whose ideas I have shamelessly plundered. Here goes….

There are a number of aspects of teaching how to write fiction. Let’s divide the process up and pay attention to at least some of them…

  1. Translating thoughts into words and sentences. This is about vocabulary and rhythm, the sound, imagery and flow of the language. If you need to pay attention to grammatical accuracy, this is where the conventions need to explained and practiced. Some of the rules of these conventions – the use of the apostrophe, for example – might need to be ‘taught’, but the best learning is from reading and speaking words aloud, analysing the ‘poetry’ of others’ language and how the full meaning is conveyed, and then bringing those insights into your own work. Working with others encourages you to hear your language, get feedback on it, and refine it constantly to achieve the effect you are striving for.
  2. Finding and developing ‘characters’. People are the essence of fiction, who they are, how they react to the world and others to them, how they speak, walk, dress. There is no easy way to develop the characters who will inhabit and drive your story, and every writer will have their own way to find and flesh out the people they need. You can start with an image, from life, from a picture, or in your head. Then you think and ask questions of this image until it develops dimensions and warmth. What motivates the person, how do they look and sound, what are they afraid of, what and who do they love, – the questions are the ones you use to check out anyone who does or will mean a great deal to you. All and any questions are relevant here, some of them very personal. Even if you never use the answers to all the questions in your story, it helps to deepen each character in this way. Once you have the details, add things like birthdays, favourite colours, hair style, etc and make a separate file, or file card, for each character to help continuity and consistency. It’ll save so much time later. This process can be both taught and practised to great effect, before you embark on a first draft of anything.
  3. Plot, and the ‘Three act structure’. You can research the theories of plot and structure online to great effect, and as much as you want. The three act structure is most commonly used in films, or in crime fiction, but you’ll find it in all forms of fiction, back to Dickens, Jane Austen and other classics that were around long before such a structure was given a name. Most fiction starts with a question – ‘What if…?’ – or a crisis, to kick start the action and grab the reader’s attention. Much of the plot will then evolve from the interaction between the characters and the events, to drive the story forward. Action is generated by both external events and internal processes, such as the emotional reactions of the characters, and their development and changes over time. We want our characters to have an impact on the external events and also be affected by them, creating tension on a number of levels to keep the reader engaged. The relationship between character and plot, between internal and external can be as complicated as you can handle, and as the reader you have in mind will be happy with. My advice would be to keep things relatively simple while you’re learning the craft.
  4. Point of view: whose shoulder are you sitting on, seeing and hearing what they see and hear in each scene? Do you write in the first person, or the third person? In the present tense, or the past. The ‘costs and benefits’ of all those approaches can also be ‘taught’ and rehearsed, leaving you the writer ultimately to make the best choices for the effect they wish to generate.
  5. The idea of a ‘theme’ that runs throughout your work. I’m not certain about this for a beginning writer. It could lead to some pretty pretentious and self-conscious stuff, and needs to be handled lightly, but this too – like keeping notes on the details of your characters – can help the continuity of longer works of fiction and add to the shape and structure of what you write. You should be able to answer the question ‘What’s your story about?’ without just recounting what happens. Incidentally, the answer to the question will also help in ‘pitching’ your story to an agent or anyone else in the book and film business. In the scale of what can be ‘taught’, the issue of ‘theme’ might not be the first thing I would ask the apprentice writer to tackle, but it would be something to work on before you start to write in earnest.
  6. Planning and thinking before you start to write: learning patience, when all you want to do is get writing. I paid a heavy price for my impatience in writing my first novel, embarking on the first draft way too soon and getting into all sorts of trouble that took years – yes, years – to untangle. What I’ve learned to do – having been well taught in various workshops – is to start with an idea or a question, and gradually expand to a page of the overall shape of the plot, then expand again, and again, and again, into ‘Acts’ or stages, then into sections, then chapters. I call this working from the inside, out.
  7. Displaying your plan. By this time you’ll have an outline for most of your sections or chapters. Now pin them up somewhere, on a wall, or lay them on a cleared floor, and look at them. Take in the big picture and start moving things around, adding bits, changing bits. You can’t do this by reading sequentially on a screen: you have to get a ‘simultaneous visual impression’ of the shape of the whole work, before you start to write. This is your map of the territory. You may change your mind about the route once you embark on the trip, and you may even change your destination, but the map is always there to ground you and to keep you going if you start to feel lost or stuck.

I’ve written this pretty fast – it’s a blog post of a thousand words or so after all, not an essay. There’s loads more you could add, and heaps of great books and advice available. But this might do for a start. I wish I’d thought about these few things before I started. I haven’t even mentioned dialogue, which is definitely something you can be taught, but if you get the characters rights, and the setting, and speak out loud whatever you have characters say, you can improve the quality of dialogue immeasurably. And then there’s the challenge of the opening paragraph. Bets way to learn that is to look at opening paragraphs, consider what makes them work, and then write your own. See what I mean? So much to be learned, and all of it can be taught, if you have the right teacher.

About ‘noticing’

In the past few days I’ve met many new people, re-connected with friends I’ve not seen for years and heard so many stories, told in many different voices. Half my mind has been on the content of our conversations, but I’ve also been noticing habits of speech, how people walk, all sorts of things about them that I’m storing away to use in future. People won’t reappear in my fiction as complete replicas of those I’m seeing around me. I’ll take a turn of phrase here, a posture there, an over-heard snippet of conversation and many other apparently trivial observations, stir them up and leave them for a while. Then I’ll discover which details bob to the surface when next I’m creating a fictional persona. My memory may need a jog, so I’ll make a few notes:  just a hint – a smell, a hand, a scar, a voice – an impression to spark a later response.

It’s clear to me that these observations have always been part of my fascination with people, but I’m now more specific and intentional in my ‘noticing’. And I’m more curious too, about the backstory and how and why someone’s idiosyncratic characteristics have developed. Give your imagination space to play and you can capture so much interesting stuff. Even if I’m not sure yet about the plot and shape of Book 4, I’m beginning to find some of the characters, and consider how they may react and behave in challenging circumstances.

I think I already have the central character. She is someone I already ‘know’, with a rich backstory already in place. Now I have to find the people around her, or against her, and provide the circumstances in which all them can reveal who they really are. Once the final painstaking stages of publishing Book 3 are behind me, then I can let the fun part of Book 4 really start. It won’t be long.



The dialogue dilemma

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.