I’ve been writing about why I haven’t been writing for a long time. Every now and then, one of these posts has been about the process of actually writing, challenges that aren’t about how to sit down and start but what happens once I’ve started.

Dialogue is not one of my greater gifts, and I’m only just beginning to feel that I can form characters which aren’t simply ciphers for myself. Turns out that understanding myself, being myself, has meant I can pick and choose parts of my own personality to play with, or explore wholly new traits which I don’t share.

I want to improve my dialogue, much as I want to improve my writing anyway. I’ve a couple of ideas for screenplays, which effectively are entirely directed dialogue, and though scriptwriting isn’t something I’m that passionate about, one thing I do know is that the more projects I can play around with the better at everything I’ll get.

Titling this post I realised that I’ve written over 60 entries like this – using roman numerals turns out to have been a fantastic idea for shortcircuiting any mental counting up I was doing to gauge my success, given that I’ve largely not thought about what the numeral meant so much as what the next one was supposed to be.

This is the 67th journal post, around twice as many as I’ve ever plugged into any blog, and in six months or so since I started journaling I’ve crashed through barriers to writing and got comfortable with spooling out whatever was on my mind. It’s not structured, it’s not amazing, it’s not Proust, but it’s taken me places I wouldn’t otherwise have gone.

Phillip Pullman, apparently, writes pages of dialogue every day, off the cuff, with no other reason than to hone his writing skills, to keep his powder dry. Once or twice I’ve given it a shot, but I think unlike this exercise – which has helped me look inside, explore and reveal – streaming dialogue won’t actually get me closer to real conversations.

Which is, actually, the problem. No one has ‘real conversations’ in books, or at least, nobody usually writes out the exact sort of conversations we have in everyday life within the narrative of a book. There’s reported speech, there’s quotes, there’s even ways of writing dialogue phonetically to imitate speech.

But do even the most experimental writers replicate the casual conversation of friends getting drunk in front of the TV together? Or the repetitive patter of football players or supporters during a match? Or brief exchanges between families in the kitchen? Perhaps there’s a light smattering of it. But a whole book? What would be the point?

So that must be what I’ve missed. In my 9to5 I’m constantly pulling myself up for writing something without actually thinking about what the point is, what the desired outcome is, what I want to say. When I’ve written dialogue in the past I’ve attempted to create an atmosphere, a general conversation. But I’ve not thought it through.

In writing dialogue without thinking about what the point is, I’ve had my characters talk without actually having anything to say. I’m happy enough describing movement, detail, surroundings, action, but with dialogue I’ve been opening my character’s mouths and getting them to “blahblahblahblah” without attempting to say anything real.

Reality is challenging enough, given that too much makes writing terrifically boring and too little makes reading awfully hard work (substitute credibility or believeability if you like for the same result). Trying to write ‘real’ conversations and at the same time forgetting to think about what these conversations would ‘say’ is a deadend.

That’s not to say I can’t write dialogue at all. But looking back my dialogue is a sideshow, an after thought, the minimum required to move from point A to point B in the story. It’s the equivalent, awkwardly, of so much of my own real life conversation where I’ve babbled nothings. I am writing chatter to fill space just like I chatter to fill silence.

Those conversations which you remember don’t usually feature everything that was said in them at all. You remember where they took you, what you learned or discovered or confessed or shared – not the words you used, not unless you do what I did when I was young and replay every cringeworthy conversation you ever have, though I only ever remembered what I said, not what was said to me.

I’m not a born listener. I have to work at it. What people say to me generally fires off other things in my brain so much that I either immediately want to tell them about it (not listening because I’m too busy wanting to speak myself) or I start thinking about it, which leads to other thinking (not listening because, well, I’m just not listening).

Dialogue is about listening, because it has to be about meaning, because you can’t write conversations without those conversations actually saying something. Or, you can, but they become boring, pedestrian or… Or you have to keep your speakers asking questions of each other, which makes the conversation less that than a writer’s exercise.

This was going to be about character, after reading this great post – http://danharmon.tumblr.com/post/9510780192/hi-dan-my-wife-and-i-love-community-and-cant-wait


About Ben Catley-Richardson

Writer, reader, husband. Father!
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