I guess all writers want to improve the way they write, and write each piece better than the last. When people first start writing they often seem so pleased to have actually finished and that what they started has reached the end, that they don’t even consider looking back over it and working on it to make it better. If they do, sometimes they feel overwhelmed – they are thrilled to have completed the task and excited by what they have done, and that is their achievement. Well done to them! Yes, that is marvellous, but it could be even more marvellous with a little reviewing, rewriting and polishing!
I work really hard once I have finished something – and in a way that is almost more challenging than writing it in the first place, when inspiration is there, and I’m being carried along by my own characters and my own narrative. However, I know, from friendly comments and positive criticism that there are two things in particular which I don’t do very well – creating a sense of place writing conversation.
Today with my writing group we are going to think about conversation, our theme will be writing dialogue – and I will tell them that I think this is a weakness of mine!! I know what my problem is, my stories are so vivid in my head that I can ‘hear’ the dialogue, every little ‘um’, ‘ah’, ‘uh-uh‘ and ‘mmm’... and when I write it’s almost like automatic writing, it just pours out onto the page – it always has, even when I was handwriting my stories, and in fact it was probably worse then!
I puzzled over this when it was first pointed out to me – I couldn’t understand how these conversations I was writing were being criticised when this was a ‘real’ although imagined conversation. But of course, I was thinking about it from my point of view, not my readers’ not my audience! I had forgotten my readers!
Since this revelation I have really tried hard to improve this part of story-telling; I don’t think I always succeed but at least now when I’m writing I’m trying to convey conversation and dialogue in a different way, rather than chopping bits out when I’m editing it.
So, what sort of things do I do? I précis conversations, I use reported speech or I summarise the whole conversation, for example in a future book in my Radwinter series, my characters are planning a trip to the West Indies: ‘That evening we talked about the trip to Tobago, we discussed how we might afford it, and if we should all go, or maybe leave the twins at home with their cousins.’
I ask myself what the point is of what I’m writing and what I am trying to convey to my readers. I know I feel as if my characters are real, and their lives carry on as anyone’s lives might, but that isn’t what happens on the page, and that isn’t what happens on the receiving end – i.e. the person reading my story. It matters because i don’t want my book to be abandoned because it’s boring!
I need to think what the point of the conversation is – how is it moving the narrative on, or how is it revealing something about the character of the character? What information do I hope to give my readers? Is it information about someone’s personality, does it reveal something about the plot, does it explain an episode? There are many purposes behind writing a conversation! Speech also varies according to the person be talked to – I sometimes forget this and so both sides of a dialogue sound the same. Also the way someone speaks to a friend would be very different from speaking to a person they don’t know, or their boss or a doctor and so on,
Conversation and direct speech are ways of adding dimension to what the reader understands about the character and what sort of person the character is. It’s important to use the right sort of vocabulary, but as a reader myself, I hate attempts at writing dialogue with an accent, it never works and it’s just an irritant – tell the reader someone has an accent and maybe use dialect words or phrases or constructions, but avoid the mistake Dick van Dyke made in Mary Poppins… even though that was spoken, not written – I don’t think I need say more!
As usual, I seem to have wandered about in what I am saying… to précis:
- précis! Keep it short! Use reported speech and summaries
- be aware of the personality, background, culture etc of your character – and also how they would speak to that particular other person, in that context
- decide on the point and purpose of the conversation – what is it trying to convey to the reader?
- how does it move the story forward, or how does it show something about the characters, and their personality and relationship?
- make the dialogue realistic by really thinking how your character would speak depending on their gender, age, origin, family, status, situation – and don’t be stereotypical, imitative
I am sure there are many other aspects of writing conversation which I haven’t considered here… (I haven’t even mentioned different verbs to use instead of say/said!) in the meantime, I’m going back to my current Radwinter story, provisionally entitles Saltpans, and I’m going to be really thinking about how I write my characters’ conversation! And here is a link to my books – I would be so grateful if you would leave a comment or review, it helps me no end to improve as a writer! Thank you!!