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Problems with dialogue? Shelley suggests the listening cure.

Ask Shelley

There seems no end to the writerly travails that land on my desk, into my inbox and even on the streets, as I’m waylaid with tearful scribes in need of help. They’re tangled in plot-twists. Their characters stink. They’re stuck for the right words to describe their setting. Some are just stuck. Blocked. And while I await Dyno Rod’s response to the idea of providing literary relief, I’ll attend to a heart-rending plea from poor Talking Cure – an ironic nom-de-plume, what? – whose letter reads as follows:

Dear Shelley, I can’t do dialogue. No matter how hard I try to make my characters speak, their conversations never sounds natural. Do you have any tips? – Talking Cure

Dear TC – I have three pieces of advice for you: Listen, listen, listen.

Listen to the voices in your head (no, you don’t have to be psychotic, we all hear them). How did your late father speak? Your best friend at school? Your first boss?

Listen to the way people speak to you now, their tone, their register that varies according to their role in your life. And listen to the voices around you – on the train, in restaurants, in shops.

Yes, I’m giving you permission to eavesdrop. Cunningly, though. You don’t want (as I once was) to be summoned to join an adjoining table at a cafe because you were apparently so gripped by their juicily intimate revelations.

But as essential as it is for good fictional dialogue, listening is only the starting point. There’s a complex process that transforms the voices we hear to the words on a page, which are convincingly ‘heard’ by the reader. The dialogue in fiction is an illusion. Characters in stories make short speeches. They don’t hesitate much, or circumlocute. Only subtly, if ever, do they use their speeches as a mouthpiece for the author to impart information.

And so, TC, (having listened, listened, listened), write down what you’ve heard and read it aloud. And practise, practise, practise.