Writing Conversation and Speech in Novels
This is another one of the ‘lessons’ I prepared for my Writers’ Group. One of our members was struggling to write natural, flowing conversation in her novel, so was doing the unwise thing, and avoiding it altogether. Ooops.
Conversation is important in any novel or short story, because in real life we speak; but in a story we have to write speech as if spoken naturally. That is the craft of novel writing, the illusion of reality.
When we hold a normal conversation with our friends and family we say whatever we like, we interrupt, and generally talk a load of old rubbish. Sometimes we have important things to communicate to friends and family, but unless we have some kind of crisis that’s probably as rare as hen’s teeth. “I’ll be there in five minutes.” “What time shall we meet?” “Is supper ready?”
When we speak to people we’re purchasing something from we ask questions. With people we’re in contention with we tend to repeat our point of argument over and over again. With other people we pass the day and recount stories of this and that, how good the supper was last night and what a fab film we saw.
Yes, this is conversation. Yawn.
When writing fiction the conversation has to be part of the story, its job is to move the story forwards and direct the reader to the next scene or point of interest. Speech in writing offers information. That is it’s only purpose.
When writing a story we don’t care that the film was fab unless the film is part of the storyline. We have to cut our conversations to the bone, but also make our characters speak naturally and clearly.
Conversations in your story also help portray what the character is like.
How do they speak? “I say, lovely day.” “Hello mate, bit of a roaster today.” Both of these characters are saying exactly the same thing, but in a different way. The key to good character portrayal is to find each character’s unique voice, without going down the line of, “Eeez very varm today.”
Alongside what your characters say is the actions we describe around their speech.
“I say, lovely day,” said Fred, waving.
“Hello mate, bit of a roaster today,” said Jim, climbing into the cab of Bert’s lorry.
We can, of course, add adverbs to flesh out emphasis of how the sentence is being spoken, but nine times of out ten we don’t need these, and they should be used sparingly. Do these adverbs add anything?
“I say, lovely day,” said Fred jovially, waving.
“Hello mate, bit of a roaster today,” said Jim wearily, climbing into the cab of Bert’s lorry.
We don’t need the jovially for Fred, because his sentence is pretty upbeat and he’s waving, however, with Jim we discover that he’s weary, and this, as it’s part of the plot line, should add additional information to the reader. Hey ho, Jim’s tired, what was he up to last night?
There are, of course, many other words that can replace said. Some I personally loath, while others can be of use. Anyone who’s interested can pop along and read a list of 218 alternatives here. http://www.spwickstrom.com/said/
The main points to remember is that dialogue must share information, move the story forwards and make something happen.
Below are some two line conversations that I offered to my writers’ group as prompts. Have a go yourself. Simply fill in the ‘he said, ‘she said,’ part of the story and see what a difference how you describe the way they said it makes each sentence sound.
“What are you doing here?”
“I don’t think that goes there.”
“Yes it does.”
“I really can’t take much more of this.”
“Isn’t it gorgeous.”
“That’s not how I’d describe it.”
“Well, I told you it would end up like this.”