Tuesday, 25 January 2011

As I was saying...

‘So,’ says Joe*, ‘Have you got any hints for writing dialogue?  You know…making it sound as though the people in your books are real.’
‘Errr…I dunno really….’
‘When I write dialogue it never sounds real. Everyone is kind of one-dimensional. You know, flat. Dull. Lifeless.’
‘Oh, I'm sure that's not true.'
 'It is! Tell me what to do!'
'Well, the main thing, when you're writing my sort of book, is is to listen out for good stuff you can pinch.’
‘What sort of stuff?’
‘Things people say. For example, the other day, I was in the car listening to the radio. It was a phone-in about undercover policemen and this guy called in to talk about going undercover with a gang of criminals.’
‘Sounds interesting,’
‘Yes it was. Anyway, he said something like “Things happened to me like getting beaten up and stabbed and other unpleasantness.” And I thought, wow, good quote,  must use that sometime.’
‘Did you write it down?’
‘Well, no, I didn’t because I was driving along at the time and if I’d whipped out a notebook I might have got arrested. Sometimes I do write things down though. When I was in the sixth form at school I used to sit with a notebook and write down everything that everyone was saying in a kind of stream of consciousness –  
‘OK..that’s a bit weird...’
‘ -  and later on I became a reporter, so I learned shorthand and then I was paid to write down the exact words that people use. Because I’m a dinosaur, there weren’t any mini-recorders then, and anyway I find it incredibly boring to transcribe from a tape – ’
‘There weren’t any recorders? Oh my God! How old are you?’
‘Not that old. I was a teenage reporter. Very, very young. Anyway I learned a lot from doing that. I learned that people rarely speak with good grammar, that they sometimes rattle on for ages, and sometimes just stop. In mid-sentence. So you have to reflect that in the way you punctuate dialogue.’
‘Umm..punctuation’s a bit boring, isn’t it?’
‘Yes. It is. Talking about it is, anyway. So…moving swiftly on. A reporter is looking through the waffle for good quotes. Interesting phrases. Things that sum up an argument or a story. And that's more or less what I do in fiction too.'
'So..seek out good quotes,' 
'Yes, and only use dialogue for the good stuff. The rest can be told in other ways.Keep dialogue punchy and to the point. Have things about your characters that you show through dialogue.’
‘Like what?’
‘Well..Ty for example, is someone who thinks a lot but doesn’t say as much. Archie in Almost True is the opposite.  Nicki, Ty’s mum, is very aspirational, and wants Ty to speak like a television presenter, but when she loses her temper she forgets all about setting a good example.’
‘Oh…OK…I think I get it.’
‘And don’t overuse it. Know what you need to get across in the bit of dialogue, and finish it off. Stuff it full of good quotes. ’
‘OK. So your advice is to eavesdrop on people, write stuff down –'
'And listen out for really good quotes. The kind of thing people say and you remember and repeat.  For example, when my daughter was six we were watching EastEnders and someone was talking about her abortion and my daughter said "I didn't know you could quit a baby" I still remembered it years later and it made its way into When I Was Joe.'
'Oh, right.'
 ‘And read dialogue out loud when you’ve written it, to see if it sounds real.’
‘So I have to eavesdrop...write down what people say...say it out loud? People will think I’m a nutter!’
‘That’s the price you have to pay…hang on! Where are you going? Come back! I've got more to say!’

 *Joe in this instance is @UnashamedlyJoe on Twitter who asked me to write a blog post about writing dialogue.  And who'd also like some more followers.


  1. yes, yes! I LOVE listening in to other people's conversations...

    I once overheard a woman talking on her mobile phone, walking briskly down an Oxford street, obviously having a blazing row with her lover; and she said - 'And ANOTHER thing! Every time you touch me, I come out in blood blisters!'

  2. ohmygod! thank you soooooo much keren! :) this will help :) i liked how you put it in a dialogue :P

  3. Brilliant post! Thank you, I have loads to think about know :)

  4. This is a brilliant post with a superb anecdote added by Katherine. Blood blisters!

  5. Great post - I LOVE writing dialogue but I do tend to get a bit carried away...

  6. Great post - love how you did it!
    Find that having been a scriptwriter helped immensely in learning to write dialogue - and eavesdropping is a really good way to learn!

  7. I once overheard two older Jewish women in a cafe in Jerusalem. Woman one said, "I heard her son married a convert." The other woman replied, "She's more than a convert - she's Japanese!"
    I love the concept of more than a convert.

  8. Yes, to be a good writer one needs to be a good listener, among other things. :)