They would never say that in real life!
Do you ever find yourself shouting that at the TV? Or silently rolling your eyes when the end of a thriller you’re reading climaxes with a killer whale leaping out of the water and becoming a supporting character during a police chase in Australia? (I think the latter happened in The Bat by Jo Nesbø and I thought it was stoopid.)
Yeah, we’ve probably all done it.
Eagle eyed or rolled eyes?
Some people are very eagle eyed, some would say pedantic even (“Those keys she just picked up are most certainly not for a 1988 Volvo 240 GLT!”) and some are mildly irritated by a plotline (“It’s just a bit far fetched for my liking…”) I think I’m somewhere in the middle but it depends how obsessive I’m feeling that day.
For me, in books, not enough people snag their sleeve on the door handle when they walk through it. In my humble opinion, too many people in films don’t think twice about grabbing a loo seat as they throw up into it, before promptly not washing their hands (mingers). As I see it, it’s just rude to not say “goodbye” before you hang up the phone. (“OK thanks” just doesn’t cut it for me, sorry!)
It ain’t what you do it’s the way that you say it
A lot of the time my gripes are to do with the script or speech itself. So many characters take themselves too seriously. Few characters laugh at what’s clearly a ridiculous situation. So many people go straight into conversations without hedging it with “it’s raining outside” and having a little stare out of the window first.
I know, I know, we’re supposed to be drawn into a story as much as possible, so long silences could lead to seven hour plays and a bored audience, but where is the realism in speech? The false starts, the hicups and the forgetfulness? It’s out there somewhere, but I’d like to campaign for more of it.
So today I’d like to pose the question: as writers, how do we ensure that what the characters say is both realistic and coherent?
Take a masterclass: There are some great examples of amazing writing to devour out there. Writing by people who work hard to keep speech natural, like Alan Bennett, Roddy Doyle, Victoria Wood, Stefan Golaszewski, Hugo Blick, Gervais and Merchant. All of these writers have the amazing knack of making speech appear spontaneous, improvised even, when they are meticulously designed thanks to their keen ear and love of the real life spoken word. Go on, give them a read. Buy the scripts. Watch them on the screen. Learn from them.
Listen to others: if you can sit in a room of friends or family and record real life speech then do it. (Make sure they’re happy with it before or after you record them though!) If you’re not brave enough to do that, make a visit to a cafe and make notes as you listen to the two little old ladies chat about geriatric Pilates next to you. What do they say? Do they use more ‘modern’ words than you expected? Do they laugh often – more often than you realise people do? Do they disagree but then move onto another topic happily? I bet they will surprise you.
Improvise: If you’re re-he-eally shy and can’t bring yourself to do the second suggestion, why not become one or two of the characters and speak like them, say what you think they’d say – but say it, don’t write it down. Record it. What do they sound like? Probably different from the written version. Craft your speech from listening back to yourself. Include the hedges, burps, pauses and false starts. The likelihood is that you might have to scale those nuances back. But keep in the ones that are interesting or could be useful to the plot. Of course, if you’re developing a script with a cast, you can outline the story to them and ask them to do the improvising, like Shane Meadows and Mike Leigh do.
Ask yourself each time you write a scene “how do people really do this?” When people argue do they speak back and forth with articulate, verbal diarrhoea for an entire fifteen minutes or do they stop, do something else, change the subject, make each other laugh (grudgingly), walk out, make a cup of tea, go quiet for a while, suddenly find flecks of dust on their trousers to flick? If your character finds out they’ve been adopted do they simply ask “who are my parents?” or do they wonder “are they rich and could I be rich too; do they smell like my adoptive mum; would they have let me go out late last night when she wouldn’t?” Irrational thoughts are probably more common than rational ones; look for them.
The crux of the matter is that I believe speech is the shop window of a great piece of writing. It’s not a secondary part of the story. It is the story. Whether speech comes from your protagonist’s first person monologue or you have a thousand characters fighting for the spotlight, your characters are your writing. Give them a megaphone and let them speak out. Loud and proud.