Writing dialogue is often a bit of a sticking points for authors and finding ways to get past it to free up our creative juices can be frustrating to say the least. These days I find dialogue quite straightforward, but a few years ago, a couple of female characters had me tearing my hair out (and I don’t have much to start with!)
I should say the characters concerned were in a stage play – a black comedy called ‘The Body in the Bag’. The story centred around William Burke and William Hare, two Irish ne’er-do-well’s who stumbled across a new way of making a living – committing murder and selling the bodies to the medical school.
But it wasn’t the guys who were the problem – it was the women. Burke and Hare both had wives and I needed some way of letting the audience know something of their backgrounds, or more specifically, how they’d ended up with two murdering bastards. I’d already penned some tasty monologues for the two Bills, such as this one, where William Hare tries to justify the bad things that happen:
It’s like we’re all sitting down at this huge great table. You don’t know what’s on the menu – you just sit there waiting with your spoon. First there’s the toffs. They get the steak and they eat it off big shiny plates that have pretty patterns round the edge. Then there’s the ordinary folk. They get beef stew, ‘cos they’re not wealthy or particularly educated, just…you know…ordinary. And then there’s the beggars, the common folk, the poor fuckers who can’t hold down a job, never have enough to eat and spend most of their time wondering if they’re going to see another day. They get the slops, the crap from the bottom of the pan that no-one else wants. And wouldn’t you know it, they’re the ones that get ill, or have their arm caught in a machine, or catch some horrible disease. Or get murdered. If you’ve got money, you enjoy a better life, it’s as simple as that.
So I started creating a dialogue between the two women that would convey something of their situation. And d’you now what? That’s right – it was crap, a turgid splurge of purple prose, achingly adjectivated, a prime example of how not to write. And no matter how many times I tried, I couldn’t make it work. It wasn’t going to happen – I just couldn’t get my characters to say what I wanted them to say.
And then I had an idea.
I already had a song in the play (a little ditty intended to offer a bit of light relief from all the murders), so I thought – why not have the women sing too?
[Suzy Enoch as Maggie and Jennifer Merchant as Helen]
So here we have Mrs Hare telling how she was taken in by Bill Hare:
Cos he loved me, I couldn’t do no wrong
And he’d talk to me, he was my poet, I was his song
And he’d ask me how I was each day
And listen to all I had to say
I was happy when my Billy came along.
Mrs Burke then reminisces about her own initial ‘romance’:
And he was fond of me, not like all the ones before
And was quite nice to me, didn’t treat me like a whore
And he never asked how I was each day
Or cared very much what I had to say
But I was happy when my Billy came along.
I remember the first time I saw him
Down in the market Square
“Fancy a drop of the other, my dear”
But I could only stand and stare…
However, later in the play the two women begin to realise what’s going on and sing about the changes they’ve noticed in Burke and Hare’s behaviour:
I always used to wonder what he did all day
And sometimes I would ask him, though I knew what he would say
Shut your face you stupid girl, and hold your bloody tongue
And make my tea and wash my vest and put the kettle on…
He’d a pocket full of money and a swagger in his walk
I’d wonder where he got it, but of course he wouldn’t talk
He’d wear that guilty look of his, like a mask he kept for best
Then he’d get the whisky out in case we had an unexpected guest…
I ended up writing six songs in all so each character got to have their say. This worked well and helped explain how they felt about their respective situations.
Of course, I’m not suggesting you stick a few songs in your novel, but sometimes coming at the problem from a different angle can work wonders.
You can hear some of the songs in the WACtheatre rehearsal video below: