Writing classes resumed after a week’s absence for half term with a focus on dialogue. If nothing else in the past few days it has made me appreciate that the placement of the “” speech-mark on a Mac is one of the few things that’s less intuitive than the standard keyboard position above the 2 found on most laptops. I digress.
Homework had been something of a spying mission; to eavesdrop on some real life dialogue, transcribe it, and note down what struck you in terms of its flow and tone. In a triumph for technology over ethics I achieved this by using the voice recorder on my phone and picked apart a brief piece of conversation that I recorded and, I should add, subsequently deleted. I won’t transcribe it here: it’s not something that I’ve actually written and was done only for the purposes of listening to how people really talk.
A number of (I guess, obvious) things were striking to me. Firstly, the extent to which conversation just doesn’t follow any readily accepted written convention – it really isn’t a series of “turns” by its participants. People interject and interrupt, brief sub conversations start up and die, people get off track, come back to the point, lose it again. Secondly, quite a bit of it is pretty dull. Some of this might be as straightforward as people playing through a set of social conventions (“hello, how are you ?” etc.) and some of it might be just, you know, that all of us have our fair share of moments being dull. Every single sentence that comes out isn’t a pithy one liner worthy of Dorothy Parker or Clive James or <insert your own favourite wit here>. Finally, pace was quite interesting to me as the cadences of people’s speech change dependant on a variety of things, from what they’re talking about to how likely it is they think they’re about to be interrupted, to the emotion they’re trying to convey. That’s a tricky thing to capture within written dialogue itself – without clues that might come off as clunky (she said slowly…).
The exercise didn’t entirely disabuse me of the notion that I like quite stylised speech in books and films; I don’t necessarily want fictional people to talk like real people, I want real people to aspire to talk like fictional ones. I guess the important thing is to try to write dialogue that reveals character. This struck me more as I took on some additional, self administered homework and picked out some random pieces of dialogue from work that I admire – specifically Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” (if pushed, my favourite book), Armistead Maupin’s “Tales Of The City”, and Douglas Coupland’s “Generation X”. I’ve included the snippets as an appendix at the bottom of this piece – no copyright infringement intended and all that.
Whilst stylistically very different it was telling in all of them that, even taken out of context, you got some sense of the character that was speaking – it gave you something to go on whether it’s Michael’s faux melodrama, McMurphy’s glee and mischief, or the Gen X’ers self involvement (pot, kettle, black – I know but technically I am a Gen Xer). The voices are distinct.
The main exercise in the class wasn’t so far removed from my extra curricular work. We were given a randomly assigned line of dialogue from a book and had to work it in to our own free written (i.e. ten to fifteen minutes, whatever comes) piece, ideally with a focus on a conversation. It turned out that I knew the book that my line was from – still not sure whether this was a good or bad thing – and once that was in my head it was difficult not to reference it in some way. So, here it is, with apologies to a couple of old school friends whose names I shamelessly plundered in this piece:
“Three pints ? said Arthur”
“At lunchtime ?”
John sat bolt upright in the bed as he called back the line.
“Let’s not do that”.
“Why not hoopy froods ?” asked Dan.
“We did it last week, remember ?”
“Did we ?”
“Yeah, Willsy was passing that paper round in the back of Latin. Hobbo never suspected a thing.”
“How far’d it get ?” asked a now interested Dan.
“Vogon poetry I think. Definitely past the towels but then Jenkins cam in about that Maths thing for half term and I think he knew we were up to something.”
“God, Jenkins… There’s a guy that doesn’t know where his towel is.”
“What do you want to do then ?”
“Is this a cheese shop ?”
“No ! Not again” all of them said in unison.
“What have the Romans ever done for us ?”
“No, seriously, no Python.”
“Ever wonder why girls never talk to any of us ?”
“It’s a mystery my friend, a mystery….”
Looking at it now it didn’t quite do what I wanted – I had a fairly specific memory of some sort of school trip and a group of lads working their way through a Python recital. It’s in that spirit and some of that comes through but it needs a little more flesh to strictly qualify as prose I think. It’s pretty bare boned at the moment. I also appear to have misremembered the cheese shop sketch as I don’t think the words “is this a cheese shop” are actually in it. The fifteen year old me would have known that. The jump off quote (which I cheated a little by breaking into two lines) is from Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy; a book which my friends and I did indeed used to quote at each other.
We also did a quick fire exercise with just the line “yes”, she said as a start point which we had to follow with one line to try to express a girl/woman in a variety of emotional states. This yielded the following (none of which I was particularly taken with):
“Yes” she said. “I wasn’t sure how we’d recognise each other, that’s why I mailed about the carnation.” (shy)
“Yes” she said. “You’re the little brother, I’m the mummy and you have to pretend that you’ve been really really naughty” (bossy)
“Yes” she said. “It’s what he asked. Turn it off” (sad)
“Yes” she said. “I have had enough, we’re going home” (moody)
“Yes” she said. “He does do that but I won’t leave him” (stupid)
That exercise was a five minute thing at the end and I struggled with it. Of the five the bossy little girl was the only one that really came easily and that’s largely because I have a six year old daughter who, on occasion, does say things like that.
However, all in all, another enjoyable week and much to ponder.
It would be remiss of me to not mention that one of my fellow classmates has just co-authored a book that has just been published. It is a non fiction piece on the subject of assisted dying and, amongst other things, compiles some heart breaking personal testimonies on the subject.
It’s an emotive topic but, to my mind, the law in the UK as it stands is wrong on this and we should seek to help people choose the manner of their dying with compassion and dignity. I wish Lesley well with her book and ongoing campaign work.
That promised appendix (and once again – this is not my work (I wish !) and it’s reproduced solely for reference)
Random snippet from Tales Of The City (Armistead Maupin):
She managed a grin. “That might be nice.”
“Try to control your ecstasy, will you ?”
“I might not be here, Michael.”
“I think I’m going home to Cleveland.”
Michael whistled. “That’s not close to death. That is death.”
“It’s the only thing that makes sense right now.”
“You mean” – he threw his napkin down – “I just wasted a whole chicken making friends with a transient ?” He stood up from the table, walked to the sofa, sat down and folded his arms. “Come over here. It’s time for a little girl talk!”
Random snippet from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (Ken Kesey):
“It’s your roll, Cheswick.”
“Hold it a minute before he rolls. What’s a man need to buy them hotels?”
“You need four houses on every lot of the same colour, Martini. Now let’s go, for Christsakes.”
“Hold it a minute.”
There’s a flurry of money from that side of the table, red and green and yellow bills blowing in every direction.
“You buying a hotel or you playing happy new year, for Christsakes ?”
“It’s your dirty roll, Cheswick.”
“Snake eyes! Hooeeee, Cheswicker, where does that put you ? That don’t put you on my Marvin Gardens by any chance ? that don’t mean you have to pay me, let’s see, three hundred and fifty dollars ?”
“What’s thum other things ? Hold it a minute. What’s thum other things all over the board ?”
“Martini, you been seeing them other things all over the board for two days. No wonder I’m losing my ass. McMurphy, I don’t see how you can concentrate with Martini sitting there hallucinating a mile a minute.”
“Cheswick, you never mind about Martini. He’s doing real good. You come on with that three fifty, and Martini will take care of himself; don’t we get rent from him every time one of his “things” lands on our property ?”
Random snippet from Generation X (Douglas Coupland):
The first chink of sun rises over the lavender mountain of Joshua, but the three of us are just a bit too cool for our own good; we can’t just let the moment happen. Dag must greet this flare with a question for us, a gloomy aubade: “What do you think of when you see the sun ? Quick. Before you think about it too much and kill your response. Be honest. Be gruesome. Claire, you go first.”
Claire understands the drift: “Well, Dag. I see a famer in Russia, and he’s driving a tractor in a wheat field, but the sunlight’s gone bad on him – like the fadedness of a black-and-white picture in an old Life magazine. And another strange phenomenon has happened, too: rather than sunbeams, the sun has begun to project the odour of old Life magazines instead, and the odour is killing his crops. The wheat is thinning as we speak. He’s slumped over the wheel of his tractor and he’s crying. His wheat is dying of history poisoning.”
“Good, Claire. Very weird. And Andy ? How about you ?”
“Let me think for a second.”
“Okay, I’ll go instead. When I think of the sun, I think of an Australian surf bunny, eighteen years old, maybe, somewhere on Bondi Beach, and discovering her first keratosis lesion on her shin. She’s screaming inside her brain and already plotting how she’s going to steal valiums from her mother. Now you tell me, Andy, what do you think of when you see the sun ?”
I refuse to participate in this awfulness. I refuse to put people in my vision. “I think of this place in Antarctica called Lake Vanda, where the rain hasn’t fallen in more than two million years.”
“Fair enough. That’s all ?”
“Yes, that’s all.”