xviii

“What about dialogue,” my better half asked me, when I’d said the same thing to her as I wrote about last night. “You said you didn’t like much actual dialogue…”. Which is true.

Except dialogue in writing often means two sides of a conversation. Or three, or four, or etc and so on. Most of what I say to people on a day to day basis is trival, work or casual conversation. Most of what me and she talk about, however, is the opposite – important, thoughtful, questioning. I would only choose to write one type of conversation.

There’s always a need for terse comments or one-word replies. Or even for mundane, nothing-talk between characters to build atmosphere or mood. Just think of the incredible conversation scenes in Tarantino’s movies – Pulp Fiction’s car ride, Reservoir Dogs and the diner, the underground bar from Inglorious Basterds.

But the style I’m embracing is much better for a certain kind of dialogue, and brilliant for highlighting the differences between thought and conversation – the things we say, the things we don’t say, what gets lost in between the mush between your ears and the noise that comes out between your teeth. There are three voices – the speaker, the replier and the speaker’s insides.

Dialogue’s a tricky thing to get right and if it’s wrong it doesn’t matter how good your idea is, but I’ve worried about that probably a bit too much in the past. I’ve got a decent grasp of how to get people talking in a story, and how to use that to drive on the story, but when I can’t sit in somebody’s head and explore the driving force behind (or suppressed by) the talking I lose my way and, basically, my characters bore me when they keep blabbing.

There’s more than one way to get inside a character, true, and there are plenty of writers out there who maintain a distance from their protagonist but still relay their inner workings, or go down the route of opening up everyone’s head so we can see what’s going on inside. But that’s not for me. In the first type I find it hard to write without that character’s voice – to maintain that distance – and with the second I find it removes a lot of the interest about conversation anyway, which is that you actually don’t know what’s going on in another person’s head.

For a long time I worried that I couldn’t get into other people’s heads like this, and that made me a bad writer. That I couldn’t create characters who were credible because I was too stuck in my own head. W2B suggested that this deep familiarity I have with my own mental comings-and-goings was actually a brilliant thing, a positive. I have to admit it’s only now, when I see that every part of me fits the style which fits me, that I understand what she meant.

The thing I love about this style, rambling and self-indulgent as it might be from time to time, is that it actually is like a conversation. True, the reader can’t interject or challenge (fortunately I do have my trusted companion to give me the surgical criticism I need) and so it’s less like an actual conversation than a drawn out monologue. But that’s still talking, and it comes with – as I was mentioning before – a self-awareness in the narration that I’ve always found really compelling.

I want to tell stories, and I love actually ‘telling’ them – saying them out loud. To write like that is natural, as the past three weeks can show, and there’s a good flow in this sort of writing that has pace but is able to meander without getting lost. Because if you do end up in a culdesac you have the ability to point that out, and so instantly return to the story and give the reader a little shakeup at the same time.

Dialogue is tough, but dialogue as an extension of an existing monologue seems far more natural and far more attractive to me. That way I can come out explicitly with what I really want people to be saying, and leave the chit-chat in the margins and the asides so it avoids cluttering the story but also gives my inner voice the liberty to be as indulgent as feels right.

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About Ben Catley-Richardson

Writer, reader, husband. Father!
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