THE STORY SO FAR
I’ve been meeting my neighbour, Evelyn, for nearly two months now to discuss creative writing.
A lot has changed in that time – for Evelyn. When we began she was a lonely widow in need of help.
Now she’s much happier since she has admitted to me that she was a traffic warden in her former life; and is now seeing someone called Lenny, a retired PE teacher, whose only redeeming feature may be that he has read and liked one of my novels.
I’ve been keeping a note of our meetings and sharing them in a series of blogs.
‘Lenny says I can’t write dialogue,’ Evelyn says.
Outside the window the winter is going for broke: howling wind, freezing horizontal rain. There’s something infinitely reassuring about a cosy kitchen on a winter’s night like this.
‘Lenny says if I could do the dialogue I could write a bestseller,’ Evelyn says.
I won’t say what I’m thinking.
‘We rented bicycles last week and cycled from Dungarvan to Kilmacthomas,’ she says. ‘Lenny once cycled all the way from Dublin to Cork, you know.’
Whereas I really like Evelyn, and value her friendly neighbourliness, not to mention her delicious recipes, and have come to look forward to these evenings with Evelyn when we discuss what goes in to writing a novel, the unexpected appearance of another party, as it were, like the ghost in Macbeth, is beginning to make me feel uneasy.
‘Dialogue, then,’ I say.
‘Yes – you see I just get stuck when I come to the I-said-he-said-she-said bits,’ Evelyn says.
ONCE UPON A TIME
‘In your former life,’ I say, ‘there must have been more than a bit of dialogue.’
‘Ha-ha. Do we have to go there?’
‘Once upon a time.’
‘Embrace it, is my advice. Think of all the different people you met as you patrolled your streets, ticket pad at the ready. Like a sheriff walking down the main street in Dodge.’
‘I’ve written down my feelings about what those encounters did to me,’ Evelyn says, ‘and that made me feel so much better! But dialogue…I think it’s beyond me, like Lenny says.’
‘With respect, forget Lenny for a moment. You can still hear what people said to you when you were giving them a parking ticket – am I right? And of course how you responded.’
‘Ugh! Come on! I just get stuck, is what I’m saying. With dialogue, I mean. And yet, it’s just us talking – right? Dialogue, I mean. Yeah?’
‘Dialogue in fiction is not reported speech. It is dialogue, an artistic rendering of speech between characters in a novel. Actual recorded speech is a muddled, hesitant affair, full of grunts, sentences that trail off into nothing, mangled syntax and incoherent thinking,’ I say.
‘Mixed tenses, grunts.’
‘I heard enough bad language in my day,’ she says. ‘On the streets.’
‘Did you tell Bill?’
‘No, never. He’d have gone out and wanted to kill people. “I’ll hunt him down and kill him” he said the one time I did tell him.’
‘Good for Bill.’
‘I have this feeling,’ she says. ‘You know. I come over here to talk about writing and we always seem to end up talking about me. My life.’
‘That’s dialogue for you.’
‘You taking the piss?’
‘Try to recall how your parking ticket – shall we call them your clients? – spoke.’
Evelyn frowns. ‘I can, in some cases.’
‘Write down what they said to you.’
‘More their emphasis. Record what they didn’t say’.
‘Ah, come on now!’
‘Subtext,’ I say.
Evelyn sighs. ‘Okay.’
‘Readers are intelligent. They know what’s meant when people speak to one another on the page.’
‘You’re being obscure again!’
‘And without further ado, he whipped out a page he had prepared for this very moment,’ I say and whip out a page.
‘You are taking the piss,’ she says.
‘Just read it. Out loud.’
‘Why? I mean, why out loud?’
‘Every writer should read their writing out loud. Speech reveals inconsistencies and bumps where the eye cannot.’
Evelyn blows air and reads.
‘John cycled the same towpath every morning on his way to work, because he knew that one morning he would meet her coming in the opposite direction. That morning, as the sun shone, he looked ahead and there she was.
‘Hi there! May I say something?’ he said, and pulled up.
She looked at him, and stopped as well. ‘Is there a problem?’
‘Our bikes are the same colour,’ he said, ‘and they both have identical carriers.’
‘I thought there might be a problem.’
‘Dark green, with yellow wheel rims,’ he said.
‘I’m sorry, but I’m already late for work,’ she said.
‘And they’re both made in Nottingham.’
‘I’ve just come through a large puddle you should look out for,’ she said.
‘I just think that this is such a happy coincidence.’
‘And there’s a patch of nettles if you try to go around it,’ she said. ‘Just saying’.
Evelyn looks up. ‘They seem to be talking at cross purposes…’
‘The reader understands what is happening.’
‘Crikey. So – is that always a rule?’
‘No rules, remember? But just be careful.’
‘He’s chatting her up.’
‘She’s talking about…nettles.’
‘Don’t murder what they really mean. Let it flow. Don’t be afraid to interrupt…’
‘Sometimes I think you’re just showing off,’ she says.
‘Another tip. The tone of a sentence in dialogue should not need any additional modification.
“Don’t think you can get away with this!” John shouted, his face flushed. He was angry.
We know he was angry. He was shouting. It’s not necessary to allude to the colour of his face. The problem with this sentence is that it goes on too long. I think it should end with ‘John shouted’. The shortened sentence allows the reader to go to the next line and get on with the story. As it stands, the reader is slowed up, which is surely the opposite of what the writer intends.’
Evelyn goes to the hob and come back with the kettle.
‘Who should I read?’ she asks. ‘Dialogue-wise.’
‘I like Dave Eggers. He’s written a novel that is entirely dialogue. It’s called, Your Fathers, Where Are They? And The Prophets, Do They Live Forever?’
‘I like Roddy Doyle,’ Evelyn says.
‘Who doesn’t? He brought Dublin dialogue into modern literature. Other names: Joyce, of course, Jose Saramago. The best crime fiction has great dialogue. Jo Nesbo, Stephen King, Lee Child.’
ACCENTS AND WORDS FROM FOREIGN PLACES
‘Bill was English,’ Evelyn says. ‘Here forty years and he never lost his accent.’
‘Pure East End.’
‘You could write the way he spoke, I bet.’
‘You mean, phonetically?’ she asks.
‘Good dialogue should avoid slavishly trying to produce peculiar accents, but it’s important to be aware of the words people from different backgrounds use, and how they use them. Simple, innit?’
‘I hate novels that use a foreign language, particularly in dialogue, and then don’t translate it,’ Evelyn says. ‘It make me feel stupid.’
‘The writer he ez trying to give you zis sense of Je ne sais quoi.’
‘What about he-said-she-said?’
‘“She asked” or “remarked” or “replied” or “cried” will all do. But beware of verbs like ‘uttered’, “affirmed”, “divulged”, “expostulated” and “appended”. They should be avoided like the plague. They’re like little puppets, jumping up and asking to be noticed, and merely detract from the flow of the dialogue.’
TIP OF THE EVENING
‘So,’ she says and looks at her watch, ‘what’s your final pearl of wisdom for this evening?’
‘Now you’re taking the piss, he intoned.’
She laughs. ‘Come on, stop being petulant, she shrieked.’
‘Don’t remind the reader,’ I say. ‘Readers are much smarter than writers. They have little trouble in remembering what’s happened a few pages, or a few chapters before. Sometimes you read novels and it seems as if the writer needs to remind himself what’s happening.’
It’s a wrap, and I see her out to the backdoor. The sky is magnificent in the winter night dome. What Joyce called the heaventree of stars.
‘Two more weeks to Christmas,’ I say.
Evelyn looks so happy. ‘Lenny and I are off to get my Christmas tree tomorrow,’ she says. ‘It will be my first since Bill passed.’
Although I know that her son, Nigel, is coming home from Sydney for Christmas, something tells me this is not the time to mention it.
‘Good for you,’ I say.
We stand there side by side, looking at the heavens.
‘Some nights, such as this, I feel blessed,’ Evelyn says. ‘Good night.’
Off she goes, that steady walk, into the tree canopy.
As I close the door, I notice the small plastic box she most have left earlier on the floor beside the coat stand. In the kitchen I prise open the lid and am met by smiling pastry.