When was the last time you were inspired to write a story - or create a character - from a snatch of dialogue you overheard? Or you discovered some useful writing device by listening to what people in real life truly say or do?
If you're a writer, I'll wager it was yesterday. Wasn't it? It wasn't? Get out your notebook!
Here are seven sneaky- and enjoyable - ways to do it. And (let it be whispered) you might even be able to set your next lunch expenses against tax....
I sit in a pub. Mine is a modern atrocity of wide-screen televisions and screaming ululations, aka music. But its patio is civilized. It overlooks a wondrous lake where carp the size of plesiosaurs lurk and occasionally eat children.
Hidden within the patio shadows, I often overhear stories that cry out to be written, with writing devices thrown in gratis.
Here’s a typical harvest. It’s replete with clever tips to make your dialogue glow. (I apologize to US readers for my British idioms. My pub lives - shamelessly - in central England.)
Device #1. The Choral Sub-Plot.
Is your dialogue turning into a monologue? Is one character going on too long? Break it up! A little sub-plot that unfolds in the background can add variety, animation and even an ironic chorus. It’s the bricolage technique. Here’s what I overheard at the patio:
“When’s your divorce coming through?”Well, maybe I made the last bit up but the rest is verbatim, exactly as I heard it.
“It isn’t. The bastard’s giving me a lot of grief. - Look at the pretty ducks, Trish. - He can’t get his fancy woman to move in with him so he’s keeping me on a string. - No, Trish, ducks don’t like peanuts. - The fool thinks I’ll come back to him - Yeah, thanks, I could do with a rum and coke. And hell will freeze over. - Don’t go near the water, Trish. - What you drinking, lover? - Trish, you hear me?- Doesn’t listen to a word I say. It’s all her father’s fault. Spoiled her rotten. - Watch out for the carp, Trish. - So the lawyers are twiddling their thumbs, ain’t they? Ruddy sharks, lawyers. - Oooh, Trish, I told you to watch out for the carp!” Bursts into tears. “This ain’t my day.”
Simenon used a similar device in The Friend Of Madame Maigret. An entire chapter consists of just one character speaking but his monologue is so imaginatively broken up - as above - that we think we ‘hear’ a roomful of conversation. And we ‘see’ the room too.
Device #2: The Helpful Bit-Player.
With this tactic, some minor character - bartender, child, pet or any entity whatsoever - persists in interrupting the speakers. The episode plays no part in the plot but the way the characters respond to the interruption can - obliquely - deepen their characterization. In this true example from my pub, a business conversation was side-tracked by a waitress:
Guest #1: “I ordered squid.”If that was a fictional story, we wouldn’t meet the waitress again but she’d have done her job. We’d have learned a lot, in passing, about the droll personalities of the guests.
Confusion. “You say squid. I bring you calamari. Enjoy!”
“Is calamari squid?”
Bemusement. “It comes with garlic butter. Enjoy!”
“I don’t like garlic.”
Roll of shoulder. “You want I bring you barbecue sauce? Enjoy!” Exit waitress, in a huff.
“Oh,” he toyed miserably with his squid “I hate people who say ‘Enjoy’. I hate Americanisms. I hate foreigners coming over here, stealing our jobs. What do you think?”
Guest #2: “Have a nice day.”
Device #3: The Significant Incident.
Imagine that people are engaged in conversation and a minor incident distracts them. The incident - inconsequential in itself - can help us slip information into our dialogue casually, without the clumsiness of an ‘information dump’. My pub yielded this true example:
Waiter: “Are you the owner of a blue Nissan Micra, Joe, what is in the car park?”What’s the point of this silly incident? Well, we’ve met a colourful waiter who could be a valuable source of local knowledge later in the story. We’ve also learned that the area has ‘the lowest crime rate in the county’. When a murder occurs there, it will be doubly horrific. And perplexing.
Consternation. “Yes, what of it?”
“I thought you should know that someone appears to have smashed your windscreen.”
Exit Joe, in panic, in the direction of the car park.
Waiter, truculent, to the company: “We’re not liable for damage to people’s cars. It says so on the noticeboard.”
Another drinker: “Does it happen often?”
Waiter: “Never before, sir, and I’ve lived here thirty years. We have the lowest crime rate in the county.”
Enter Joe, much annoyed. “The windscreen wasn’t broken, you idiot. A pigeon had just crapped on it. My next drink’s on the house, don’t you think?”
Waiter, lugubrious: “I’ll take it up with the management.”
Device #4. The ‘Impossible’ Dialogue.
Sometimes what we overhear in dialogue cannot be replicated in our stories. Our readers would not believe us, even though it’s true. Here’s what I heard - truly - at an olde world pub, not my own, just a few months ago. The local hunt was meeting and the ‘county set’ was in full cry.
“I say, Charles, I’m your whipper in today.”If you met those characters in a story you’d cry “These people are straight out of P.G. Wodehouse. You’re writing farce!” Yet a few fossils like that still do exist in middle England - wearing tweeds, monocles and jodhpurs - as if in a time warp.
“What! Jolly good show, old man. And your good wife?”
“Lady Gladys is bringing up the hounds.”
“Top hole! That calls for a bumper, don’t you say?”
When you present characters who are too absurd to be true, though they’re true, have another character within your story assume the role of the reader - and challenge them.
“Are these people real?” Jane rolled her eyes at me.Now the ‘odd’ characters have been rendered plausible, by being questioned within the story.
“They believe they are. And has it ever occurred to you, they might think we’re odd?”
“Weird,” she murmured, and pressed my hand. “Am I odd, Bill?”
Device #5: The Catalytic Character.
In chemistry, a catalyst is an agent that effects or facilitates a change, without being changed itself. Or so I’m told. You can do the same thing in dialogue with a ‘catalytic character’. They play no role in the story itself but they move the story on. I’m in my pub again…
“May I have your signature on this petition?”If this was fiction, we might hear no more about the petitioner - a catalytic character - but we’d know that a crematorium will loom large in the story, and our blimpish bird watcher will soon be foaming at the ramparts. With a pitchfork.
“It’s to oppose the building of a crematorium beside the lake.”
“A crematorium? Are they mad? This is an area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. I’m the secretary of the Mead Bird Watching Club. How dare they?”
He pushed across the petition, and a pen. “May I look forward to your support at the council meeting this Friday?”
“I’ll bring my pitchfork!”
Device #6: The Mime Show.
Have you ever ‘overheard’ a conversation in which nothing much is said but a lot seems to be happening? I’m not sure I heard this but I didn’t need to. The characters’ language with fingernails, glasses and olives was eloquent enough.
“Well?” She fingered her glass.Body language is more than a device to break up dialogue. Sometimes, it can be dialogue itself.
He inspected his fingernails. “I’m not saying it’s impossible…”
“You mean, I’m being foolish.” She chewed an olive.
“But, you know...” He flapped his fingers.
An indrawn breath. “Your wife?” He averted his face. She spat the olive pit into her palm. “Oh, why does she always, always come into our conversation?”
“Darling, I didn’t mean…”
She wiped her mouth. “Please take me home.”
Device #7: The quirky conversation.
Just across from my pub is a tiny general store, so quaint and murky that Dickens might have used it as a model for the Old Curiosity Shop. Its proprietor is equally ancient. One day I went in, wearing a polite smile.
“Don’t be grumpy,” he said.As they say, you couldn’t make it up. Every snippet of quirky dialogue like that is fodder for a story. Even a catchphrase can add personality to a minor character. Every time I leave the shop he says, grumpily, “Happy Christmas”, regardless of the season. Yes, he’s a character. And one day, he’ll appear in one of my stories…
“But I’m not grumpy.”
“Please don’t be grumpy.”
“I’m NOT grumpy!” I shouted.
“Now you’re grumpy. What can I serve you?”
In summary, spend a lot of time in your local pub. Not only will you pick up priceless snippets - and writing devices - but you can also set everything you spend there, past and future, against tax. They’re legitimate research expenses.
Trust me. When have I ever lied to you?
Have you ever been inspired to write a story - or create a character - from a snatch of dialogue you’ve overheard? Or discovered some useful writing device by listening to what people in real life actually say or do? Share your experiences in a comment below. Every comment gets a fast, thoughtful reply.
This is the usual place where the author drops in an awesome biog, picture and Call To Action. Why should I be different? (BTW: my name is John Yeoman, top-rated Amazon author, writing coach extraordinaire, and a man legendary for his modesty...)
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Posted by John Yeoman. Posted In : The Writing Craft