A Writer’s Life No.5: Keeping An Ear Open

Reading & Writing

I overheard this on the tube yesterday.

‘I was hosting a health talk show, sort of like Dr Miriam Stoppard, and I’d taken so many pills I had no idea what I was saying.’

‘Oh? I trod on her foot once, you know.’

I love overhearing odd snippets of conversation. Joe Orton was famous for making notes on buses as he listened in to his fellow passengers. He once overheard two women complaining: ‘There’s a lot of green about these days.’ ‘Yes,’ said the other, ‘and there’s a lot of blue around, too.’

The master of dinner party conversation, in that he was the first person to translate it to the page so that it really appeared to have been overheard, and not just consisting of epithets, was the deeply strange Ronald Firbank, but there were others after him. Surprisingly, Noel Coward was very good at this. In ‘This Happy Breed’ he record an over-the-fence chat which concludes; ‘How’s your boy now he’s started shaving?’ Oh, he just knocked the heads off a few spots but he’s alright.’

Real conversation is a messy, fluid thing that doesn’t usually work in books, because most conversation in books is designed for a purpose, while much of the talk in our lives is more about filling empty air. Info-dumps in crime novels are hard to avoid sometimes, and need to be broken up in a way that feels real. Charlaine Harris is the mistress of the truly bad info-dump, and there’s not a dialogue line in her books that ring true – but perhaps they’re not meant to sound real.

The director Mike Leigh has for the most part made his actors improvise their parts in workshops, but then locks the dialogue at a certain point so that it becomes a fixed script. As a result, his films are peppered with the kind of memorable phrases that stick in your head forever and get repeated to friends. Most people I know can still quote from ‘Abigail’s Party’ and I regularly quote from ‘High Hopes’ and ‘Secrets & Lies’.

The alternative to naturalism is stylisation, huge in the sixties, the golden era of experimental books and theatre, now dead as a doornail, although I love the writer Ned Beauman, who stylises perfectly and seems incapable of writing a dull sentence.

Aardman Animation debuted with their Plasticene animals chatting using the conversations of real people in ‘Creature Comforts’, of which, a compilation here:

4 comments on “A Writer’s Life No.5: Keeping An Ear Open”

  1. Dan Terrell says:

    That clip was great. The animals really “lived” their dialogue.
    When a writer does dialogue well a story’s on its way to being accepted by the reader. The reverse is true if the dialogue is badly done .
    I’m reading a British writer’s new novel, set in Texas, and finding it painful going. He just hasn’t convincingly captured American speech rhythms, word use, content and interplay. (He tries to get around having to do Texas Talk by having his primary characters from other States, but the problem is broader.) The dialogue reads as if he’s made notes on common usage, read newspapers, and seen films and TV, but hasn’t been able to adapt his natural writing to the American thing. The result is uncomfortable and at least for me distracting.
    Americans, of course, have the same problem with British speech and heaven help us when we are doing a Scot, Irishman or other. “Oh, I say, my good man.”
    Listening, overhearing, and people watching skills are most necessary for convincing writing.

  2. Ian Mason says:

    Aardman’s Creature Comforts was preceded by a series of animations called Lip Sync based on recordings of real unprompted conversations (Creature Comforts was necessarily prompted as they were making adverts). Subjects included someone talking about their minor criminal career (“Going Equipped”), someone reminiscing about their early marriage, air raids and the tumbledown house they lived in (This one includes a dog who was clearly the prototype for Grommit) and others. They are well worth hunting down if you can find them.

  3. John says:

    I once overheard this exchange while crossing the ferry to Nantucket:

    “Cape Cod. Isn’t that where David Copperfield is set?”
    “David Copperfield? You mean the magician?”

    Related to this discussion of dialogue writing is chit-chat in novels. Nothing will get me to shut a book quicker than nonsensical chit-chat unrelated to the plot. It’s as if the writer has completely lost control of the story and the characters take over and are entertaining the writer alone.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    But book dialogue can’t all be plot prompted because no one lives that way, unless it’s a 3rd person book and the dialogue is a quoted exchange.

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