‘Dialogue Is Not Conversation’

The Arts

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This is a nugget of wisdom that I vaguely recall comes from the marvellous Kenneth Tynan (although I may be wrong – he delivered far too many bon mots). I was thinking about this because I’m writing a dialogue-heavy book at the moment, and also posted Maggie Armitage’s texts, which I trimmed for content but wanted to display in order to show how her natural speech sounds.

If you record everyday speech it sounds extraordinarily different to what you read or hear. We edit and process while we speak, which requires the insertion of pause-words, from ‘like’ to ‘you know’ and ‘kind of’ as we shape sentences. There’s a scene in ‘The Omega Man’ that perfectly captures this disparity, as Charlton Heston watches the documentary ‘Woodstock’ after the end of the world.

Writers have always kept notebooks in order to try and capture the flavour of real speech. Joe Orton recorded the conversations of people on buses, noting one woman telling another, ‘There’s a lot of blue about these days. And a lot of green.’ Alan Bennett famously has a fine ear for the absurdities of conversation, particularly Northern ones. The strange writer Ronald Firbank (who gets a chapter to himself in ‘The Book of Forgotten Authors’) was a master of catching conversations barely heard and registered.

Interestingly, all of these writers are known for their deliberately artificial, theatrical style, yet all work hard to reproduce how we actually sound. When you live outside of England the first thing you have to do is dial down the complexity of your sentence structure, which can be rather baroque to other ears. This is not to suggest that it’s superior, merely that we’re taught it in a way that encourages a facility with language. PG Wodehouse is a master of the lightened sentence;

‘Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to speak French.’

And there are several fine US crime writers who capture this laconic tone. Our basic language needs are commands, questions, requests, and these are the first things we learn in another language, but we move on to hopes, doubts, wishes, suppositions, suggestions and jokes. In a book, film or play we wish to limit these options in order to carry action forward. So the first thing we remove is doubt, especially from the hero’s point of view. If we don’t, we get;

Officer: We have to storm that tower and take out the sniper right now!

Hero: Well, we could do that, yes, or I suppose we could try the back entrance. Couldn’t we?

And so we edit out our real conversational tics, and if we remove too many of them the dialogue becomes false to our ears. In ‘Game of Thrones’, the painfully clunky infodumps of the earlier seasons gradually gave way to more naturalistic, less hubristic dialogue, until there were actually scenes you could believe in. The need to convey information must be coupled with some sense of real thought processes, otherwise we get those ‘The barbarians are at the gates of Rome’ speeches that still pepper BBC plays.

Galton & Simpson, ever the masters, knew how to throw a spanner into the works of the simplest language.

Hancock: How’s the wife?

Bus Conductor, Dunno, never asked.

In ‘Steptoe & Son’ they married a kind of mangled erudition (Harold’s intellectual pretensions) to unacceptably plain speaking (Albert’s bluntness) and this is what’s missing from much dialogue writing – the idea of character coming through speeches. It’s a Shakespearian device, of course, rarely used even by his contemporaries, but an essential skill, and one that seems lost on many writers. My antipathy to some bestsellers like ‘The Girl on the Train’ stems from this problem. So little sense of personality shapes the dialogue that it is virtually impossible to separate the characters from one another.

It’s the biggest stumbling block that writers face – the need to tell a story is often in direct conflict with the desire to understand character. Sometimes the best moments in any play, film or book are when the characters are caught with nothing to really say or do. ‘Waiting for Godot’ and the Breaking Bad episode ‘The Fly’ both shine here, and it’s why ‘Steptoe & Son’ still towers over most comedy – it imprisons its characters with little to do. This is why Marvel films triumph over DC films – they allow for intrusion of character. Heroes become cyphers enslaved by story.

The Guardian runs a dinner date breakdown every Saturday, in which two people assess their blind date, and one thing we immediately notice is how much more carefully Millennials tread when offering opinions, so that their characters don’t show. It’s something that hampers speech now, and has led to the rise of those with extreme views who say the unsayable – but that’s for another post.

9 comments on “‘Dialogue Is Not Conversation’”

  1. Louise says:

    Enjoyed this post very much. I’m a speech therapist, working with people who have lost much of their verbal language because of brain injury. They rely heavily on facial expression, tone of voice and gesture to convey their intent, something we all do without thinking about it – another level of communication that must be tricky for the writer.

  2. Jan says:

    Tell you what I can never get my head round Louise when you nurse a stroke patient whose speech is barely intelligible and you really need to concentrate and often pick up non verbal info to understand them. Then the patient get a phone call from a friend or relative and lo and behold you understand them pretty much perfectly whilst they speak on the phone. It’s so WEIRD.

    It’s a different internal route the brain takes apparently. This is the reason talking on a Moby whilst driving even with hands-free is trickier and more dangerous than nattering to your passengers. So odd!

  3. Brooke says:

    “… we notice..how much more carefully Millennials tread when offering opinion…It’s something that hampers speech now.”

    An inability to think hampers speech now. How many times can the current U.S. president say “great” in a 2 minute speech (or should I say monologue)? As one satirist said: Republicans are angry with Obama because he uses complete sentences and words of more than one syllable–it confuses them.

    What’s missing in writing is not only the idea of character emerging through speech but also character emerging through internal, conversation with myself, and the subtle shift in language when internal moves to external. In Ms. Armitage’s case the shift seems to be very rapid– which makes a charming read.

  4. Roger says:

    ” So little sense of personality shapes the dialogue that it is virtually impossible to separate the characters from one another.”

    Yet Ivy Compton-Burnett’s characters all sound exactly the same and can be easily told apart.

    I have the opposite result to your patients, Louise’ a fractured skull gave me face-blindness – well, face-astigmatism, you might say – and partial deafness and astonishing alertness to words and the differences between what people are trying o say and what they actually say.

  5. Jan says:

    The differences between what people are trying to say and what they actually say. Think of the differences good and bad if we were all fully alert to them.

  6. Ian Luck says:

    My all-time favourite bit of overheard conversation was between two elderly ladies in a bus going from Ripon to Harrogate. I was sitting right behind them. They had a conversation littered with unpleasant ailments, and funeral catering, etc., and then one said: “We’re having our windows replaced next week”, to which her friend replied: “Yes, we had ours done the other year. I think the old ones had gone thin because of all the people looking through them”… I tried hard not to laugh, and wrote it down on a bit of paper. On a different tack, I was pleased to see a mention of Maggie Armitage. You might think it odd, but whenever she appears in a Bryant and May book, I always picture her as the brilliant Miriam Margoyles. Is that weird? I also (and feel vindicated by another of your posts), always saw Bryant and May as Arthur Lowe and John Le Mesurier. I take it that’s why you called them Arthur and John?

  7. Ian Luck says:

    The “How’s the wife” comment, whilst funny, was outdone by one written by Michael Palin or Terry Jones in their classic ‘Ripping Yarns’ tale, ‘Golden Gordon’. In the members bar of Barnestoneworth F.C., the barman is asked: “How’s the wife?” He replies: “Still farting.” It’s so random, it always makes me laugh, and you really want to know more.

  8. Peter Dixon says:

    Do you say what you mean or do you mean what you say?
    Most of conversation is made up of a dialogue around shared experience or knowledge, sometimes impermeable to a bystander. Irony makes the whole thing more difficult to those with no sense of it. I was in town with a friend recently who pointed to a group of people; one was about 6ft 4 with an Iron Maiden T-shirt and tattoos on every available piece of flesh, including his head. He was clutching a bunch of roses and talking to two people with a pair of bull-terriers. My pal said “Its nice to see that romance isn’t dead”.
    In conversation people often repeat themselves a number of times or simply make noises which are rarely included in written fiction, although Monty Python used them a lot.
    Also people make supposedly witty asides or jokey comments on a fairly continuous basis which would be unbearable in fiction.
    If you actually look at an episode of any Soap and break down the dialogue, then compare it to a real series of conversations you’d have to come to the conclusion that they’re all manic depressives.

  9. Helen Martin says:

    Facebook and groups on-line have affected my written speech. I agree about writers who can’t seem to differentiate their characters’ speech and it’s even worse if the book is printed without quote marks or paragraphing so you have to go back to the beginning of the conversation and divide comments carefully so as to determine who said what. In most discussion groups you must be very careful about expressing any sort of generalised opinion because there is always someone ready to leap at you for any use of the word “most” or even “many” and if you don’t put any limiters on your noun there will be someone ready to assume you mean “all” and throw poisoned spears at you. Don’t like poisoned spears so I tone down any expression of universality unless I have genuine, citeable documentation. That may be a good thing, but loose discussions aren’t always a bad thing.

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