Some bits and pieces about writing dialogue, taken from Ford Madox Ford’s Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance, a sort of biography. Here Ford is describing his writing collaboration with Conrad.
One unalterable rule that we had for the rendering of conversations—for genuine conversations that are an exchange of thought, not interrogatories or statements of fact—was that no speech of one character should ever answer the speech that goes before it. This is almost invariably the case in real life where few people listen, because they are always preparing their own next speeches.
When, of a Saturday evening, you are conversing over the fence with your friend Mr. Slack, you hardly notice that he tells you he has seen an incredibly coloured petunia at a market gardener’s, because you are dying to tell him that you have determined to turn author to the extent of writing a letter on local politics to the newspaper of which, against his advice, you have become a large shareholder.
He says, “Right down extraordinary that petunia was…”
You say, “What would you think now of my…”
He says, “Diamond-shaped stripes it had, blue-black and salmon…”
You say, “I’ve always thought I had a bit of a gift…”
Your daughter Millicent interrupts, “Julia Gower has got a pair of snake-skin shoes. She bought them at Wiston and Willocks’s.”
You miss Mr. Slack’s next two speeches in wondering where Millicent got that bangle on her wrist. You will have to tell her more carefully than ever that she must not accept presents from Tom, Dick and Harry. By the time you have come out of that reverie Mr. Slack is remarking:
“I said to him use turpentine and sweet oil, three parts to two. What do you think?”
…on the whole, the indirect, interrupted method of handling interviews is invaluable for giving a sense of the complexity, the tantalisation, the shimmering, the haze, that life is.