What I talk about when I talk about writing

writing and readingI was asked at a party the other day a question I’m asked quite regularly, How do you actually sit down and write?

I was not in the most generous of moods, and so went into detail about bending my legs at the knee, and the mechanics of picking up a pen.

It is not, though, a silly question. For people who don’t write fiction, or those just starting out, the process can seem mysterious – as if all writers have inspiration breathed into them, and put down words in an artistic frenzy.

On very rare occasions, this can happen. You get an idea and its expression flows through connected ideas that come out in fully formed sentences. Most of the time, however, this is not the case.

In a previous post, I talked a bit about structuring films, and a common division of writers has it that you are either an architect (someone who plans) or a gardener (someone who lets ideas/prose grow organically). From my experience, almost all writers are a bit of both.  Assuming you are on the scale (between architect and gardener), what you do when you sit down to write will rely a lot on what you do when you’re not writing.

Writing dialogue:

I came to script-writing through fiction: short stories and novels. In fiction, dialogue is not necessarily less important, but less prevalent. A bad writer can get away with poor dialogue in a novel (by writing little of it and making it secondary), but because it comes amid swathes of narrative, it will stick out, and make the whole enterprise seem less believable, polished or worth reading. All this really means is that, whether writing fiction or scripts, dialogue is importan,t to get right. To get it right, what your characters say needs to seem natural to them and in the world in which they live (this is true of kitchen-sink drama as much as it is sci-fi or fantasy). How do you make dialogue seem natural? First, as a method-actor would, you must try to become the character. Next, avoid cliches as they would (which means, if you’re describing a management consultant, you ought to include lots). Finally, make people stop mid-sentence, get other characters to interrupt, avoid eureka moments (how often do you realise a critical idea mid-sentence?), be economical with your speech, don’t use long or foreign words unless they’re absolutely necessary (see Orwell), swear only as often as you would in front of your mother, don’t fill your speech with adverbs or adjectives, and read sentences back to yourself out loud. If they sound stupid, they probably are.

The best training for this is to listen to people. Listen to your dad, and your friends and your boss; mark their tics and idiosyncrasies. Calibrate your register, so that the words you write are taken from the words you hear.

One final point: expand your vocabulary and frames of reference. If your dialogue sounds stiff or unnatural, it’s probably because you can’t put into words the sights and sounds and smells milling around your head. Read more, spend more time in pubs, and if that doesn’t work, maybe give management consultancy a go.

NOTE: I’ve run out of time here; descriptive writing will come in another post.

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