More on My Problems with Writing Dialogue

"Hi there, handsome. Looking for a good time?"

“There’s an ape on my balcony”.
“Well as long as you only snog it, I’ll forgive you”.

That’s the opening to a conversation I had over the phone with my husband. He was in Gibraltar, in his hotel room. He sent me photos of his ape by email.

“Did you get the photo of the ape”.
“Yes. And I take it back”.
“What’s that?”
“Forgiveness. I take it back.”
“Why’s that?”
“She’s better looking than me”.
“Not by much”.
“So did you?”
“Snog her? Of course not, even if she is better looking than you”.
“So what did you do with her?”
“I gave her a banana”.
“Is that a metaphor?”

"Isn't this the cutest ... you ever did see?".

My husband has to travel quite often.  This is a fairly typical example of the sort of ‘comedy act’ dialogue we tend to have over the phone. Written down, it’s not too bad, is it? Why then does writing dialogue for my characters render me, or rather them, speechless?

In my previous blog about problems with writing dialogue, I mentioned having seen a TV interview with Man Booker Prize winner Hilary Mandel and that she’d said she wrote by turning her notes into dialogue.  I got hold of one of her books: Wolf Hall. And noticed that I came away from her scenes with images.  That I was going to go through my manuscript (Flint & Feather) and revise each scene with the question: “What images do I want to give to the reader in this scene“.

I’m still reading Wolf Hall. It’s a fictionalised version of the life and times of Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540). From humble beginnings he rose to become Henry VIII’s Chief Minister, from 1532-40.  Then, alas, he was beheaded. I’m also reading Mandel’s Beyond Black, a novel of a very different genre. Beyond Black’s bout the lives of and relationship between a psychic medium and a woman who becomes her personal assistant. I’m intrigued that the psychic is a lady of size and the assistant is very much the opposite. I am curious to know how this contrast will play out.

"See my shoes anywhere?"

“What images do I want to give to the reader in this scene?” hasn’t been a bad idea. Where it’s falling down is that it still doesn’t present me with a method of giving the reader images.  And I found myself pondering this recently – during the night, as usual! – and I kept coming back to Mandel’s statement about turning her notes into dialogue. And it came to me that I should do another sweep through my ms., thinking of my scenes as notes to turn into dialogue and looking at everything I’d written that isn’t dialogue.
And I found my method. 
Here’s an example.

This is the beginning of Scene 8 from Flint & Feather:

Green oblongs floating above a crimson circle.

It seems descriptive. Well, it is descriptive. And nothing but. Now watch what happened when I put quotation marks around it:

“Green oblongs floating above a crimson circle”.

What was just description is now being spoken by one of my characters. My main character in fact. As originally written, this is the point of view of an omniscient voice.  It’s narration, (i.e. the author’s voice (mine) sticking her pen in where it shouldn’t ought to be). I don’t want narration. I want the action in my scenes to be presented to my readers (if I ever get any) filtered through to the minds then lips of my characters, from cameras on their heads.

"Can't hang around here all day".

Putting quotation marks around this passage has forced me to ask who is saying this and why.  Well I have an idea why it’s in the scene – the image I want to create. Now I have to ask myself if this is the best way of creating this image. And in the process I came up with even more:

“Green oblongs floating on a crimson circle.  A circle of crimson blood”.

There are two characters in this scene.  Putting quotes round these words means one of them has spoken.  The words have to fit my character’s well, character. And it obliges the other character to react (even if by silence).

I’ll now go through my ms. and put quotes round any passages presently without them and see what happens.

I feel a bit like Baron Frankenstein, only this way I’m shocking my characters into life without wasting a single watt of electricity!

Of course, this is just one way of fashioning scenes. There are many, some of which no doubt I’ve yet to hear.

That ape (which is really a monkey by the way) deserves a whole bunch of bananas.


About AnnIsikArts

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2 Responses to More on My Problems with Writing Dialogue

  1. I laughed at your introductory conversation with your husband, and stayed for your dialogue insights. I often go through my ms narrative to see what I can change into dialogue, but I tended to assume it would take a fair bit of editing. That’s probably true in many cases, but I think you’ve shown that more can actually be made into dialogue than we might expect. Thanks for such an entertaining lesson!


    • annisik51 says:

      Hello Linda
      And they say ‘never work with children or animals’! Yes, I often find that what are to me ‘blinding insights’ have been obvious to everybody else since the dawn of time. Thing is, even if I’ve read all the ‘how tos’ ever written, until THE VOICE comes in the night, to drop the penny, it’s just so much theory. I’ve made someone smile though – through dialogue – maybe I should give up mystery for humour! I see you have won a VERSATILE BLOGGER award. Not sure what it is but sounds prestigious. Well done. I’ve done the expat life too and that’s as difficult as – dialogue.


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