Today’s guest blog post, on the topic of dialogue, is brought to you by novelist and short story author Kristen Bailey.
Putting Words In Their Mouths – How I Write Dialogue
When I was little, I was always slightly in awe of the cinema. I was a child of the eighties, when films were always a big event and I spent many hours with my sister and brother watching films over and over again until the video tapes sometimes snapped. It didn’t stop there, we would re-enact them, and commit a vast repertoire of classic lines to memory. I would like to say I’ve matured a lot since then, but still now Sunday lunch will be spent with the three of us quoting entire scenes from films that no-one else has seen, to the despair of my parents who wonder where they went wrong raising us…
It’s why I often think I’m obsessed with dialogue when I write. It’s the part of writing I actually love the most as it gives my characters life and purpose. By rights, this means I should probably be a screenwriter but instead I write contemporary women’s fiction where dialogue always features heavily and which often has to have an acerbic comedy edge to it. Does this mean my work is brimming with one-liners and jokes? Not really, and especially when it comes to dialogue. Few people speak like stand-up comedians and I know immediately if I’ve forced a joke in my dialogue as it will feel unnatural on reading it aloud. A lot of comedy is actually in the delivery and the situation, but it’s also not always explicit. It can be observational or paired with the reaction of someone’s inner thoughts. An editor once gave me the good advice to limit the amount of swearing I used in dialogue too. Saying ‘f***’ a lot can be amusing but can be jarring to read in print. It’s far funnier to be inventive instead: consider the usual ‘f****** hell!’ and how a replacement like ‘mother of arsebiscuits!’ is more memorable yet equally as impactful.
In both my novels, Souper Mum and Second Helpings, I also gave myself the challenge of tackling a variety of dialects; Tommy McCoy is a Mockney TV chef, Jools’ husband, Matt is Scottish, his mother Italian, Cam is American and Remy, Luella’s husband is French. Why not just ensure all my characters are from South London? Well, where would be the fun in that! I think it’s a tribute to my background and line of work. I’ve always loved, listening to the way that people talk; the intonation, the rhythm, the dialect that sets any one speaker apart from another. I trained and worked as a teacher of English as a foreign language so have always been fine tuned into listening to people’s accents but it’s also something I grew up with having a Singaporean mother and Guyanese father. Of course, authenticity is key here, so when writing dialogue in dialect I always read it aloud. My husband knows this better than most as he often wanders into a darkened room confused as to why I’m doing bad impressions of Shrek…
Inspiration to write dialogue can come from different sources too. I am admittedly a bit nosy and a great eavesdropper, nothing gives me greater joy than being sat on a crowded train and being inspired by two drunk people having a conversation about nothing. Because sometimes conversations have no purpose, their credibility is in their normality. In Second Helpings especially, there are scenes between Matt and Jools littered with incomplete sentences and a conversational ‘shorthand’ that is often evident between couples who have lived with each other for so long that they implicitly know what the other is talking about. In these scenes, economy is key: the prose takes over but I annotate the action with periods of comfortable silence too.
However, I’m still a TV/film addict too. I believe some of the best writing today is on television, and hearing dialogue being read out, as it should, can give you such great clues into how people really speak. Orange is The New Black has some of the best one-liners I’ve ever heard, the dialogue is not only slick but the comedy comes with how quick they spew out those lines, one on top of the other. For comedy inspiration, I always go back to shows like New Girl, Sex and the City, Modern Family and anything by Graham Linehan.