‘Dialogue Is Not Conversation’
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.