Novel writing – getting the dialogue right

Published by Emma Lee-Potter in on Wednesday 16th May 2012

As a journalist, I spend my days interviewing people and reporting what they say. Maybe I’m kidding myself but I reckon I’ve got a good ear for dialogue – and for an authentic-sounding quote.

But writing novels is far harder. For a start, you’ve invented the characters yourself (unless you’re writing a Hilary Mantel type tome, of course) – so you have to invent convincing dialogue for them too. And bearing in mind that we all speak completely differently, you have to invent different-sounding dialogue for every character, young and old. Joanna Trollope’s a brilliant writer but I always think her characters sound too alike when they speak.

I tried to bear all this in mind when I wrote my new novella, Olympic Flames – and having straight-talking, nearly grown-up children helped a lot. When one of my younger characters described a girl as being “a slip of a thing,” my daughter was on the phone in a trice. “I’ve asked all my flatmates and none of us know what on earth you mean,” she told me. The phrase “getting in a lather” met a similar fate. “No one uses that,” she said. “It should be ‘stressed out.’” And as for “playing gooseberry,” my son rolled his eyes in despair and instructed me to change it to “being a third wheel” – immediately.

So getting your characters’ language and tone right is crucial. But then again you don’t want to go too far and sound as though you’re trying to turn into a hip twenty-something. Not that I ever was a hip twenty-something, sadly.

Actually, all this talk about dialogue reminds me of my first novel, Hard Copy. It was set in the newspaper world, complete with tight deadlines, stressed-out (see, I’m learning) reporters and demanding bosses. One day my copy editor rang me. “There’s a slight problem with the language,” she said. My heart sank, thinking of the smattering of swear words I’d put into the novel to make the news room sound authentic. “Why, is it too bad?” I asked. “No, she laughed. “It’s not bad enough…”

Olympic Flames by Emma Lee-Potter (Endeavour Press, £1.99)

PS. With every room in the house bursting at the seams with books, I’ve just got a Kindle. I think it could change my life – or at least lead to a much tidier office!

4 comments so far

  • Great post, Emma – and keep us updated with your new life-with-a-kindle! Be interesting to know if it changes your reading habits in any way – reading more/buying more/reading different types of books/buying because of price rather than content… Report back please!!

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