We’re eight of us, at a party and Hayley says, ‘Well, would you believe they do glass bottom boat trips in Scotland? We went last summer, and it was amazing. Worst weather of the holiday, but I suppose the fish don’t mind. It was lucky I’d packed two sets of wet weather stuff. I thought I was never going to get my boots dry. It was worth it though. I’d never have thought there was stuff like that on our coasts.’
Our attention begins to stray within a sentence or two. It shouldn’t have. Hayley’s a patient and attentive listener to our stories, so it would have been polite for us to return the favour. But we are all reminded of our own sea adventures, and soon there are splinter conversations all round the table.
It might be that we are just the worst kind of friends, with no manners. Because it’s only as we are debating the best age for having ears pierced, and I happen to notice Hayley’s head’s turning left-to-right-to-left, following the banter between Jean and Harry on either side of her, that I realise Hayley didn’t describe the amazing part of her trip in the glass-bottom boat.
Perhaps she had poor timing. It was late, and there were more empty bottles on the table than full. The mood was getting more boisterous, perhaps a little competitive.
Besides, it’s the nature of conversation in a general group gathering to shift through subjects rapidly. Sometimes we contribute, at others the focus of interest shifts topic and we’re left behind. Conversation, you might point out, is about interaction, not monologue, and some of us have a better grasp of that than others.
Now though, I’ve placed Hayley on the page. And in case we’ve forgotten, let me remind us that with writing, every mark or gap counts. Hayley’s experience is no longer something that has faded from consciousness by the next morning, it is now the focus of attention. That party exists, no matter how sketchy my two paragraph description is, for as long as this page exists.
Hayley, with all her strengths and weaknesses has begun to take form in fiction. I suppose, in that case, I could allow her to tell you the story of her trip on a glass-bottom boat and the epiphany she experienced. You could say I owe her that much, for placing her on the page in such an unflattering manner. Perhaps we all do. There are times when even the most reticent of us gets distracted from the next person’s narrative, aren’t there?
I could set things right. I know all the details. But that’s not what I set out to do here. Interested as I am in Hayley, on this page she exists only because I’m thinking about how conversation works or, all too often, doesn’t work in fiction.
The plain fact is that Hayley is not good at telling stories, or jokes, for that matter. Now that I’ve written her down, we can see where she’s going wrong. Actually, they’re pretty much the same mistakes we all make in live conversation, digression, starting in the wrong place, giving more detail than necessary, pedantry, launching into monologue instead of interacting.
Monologues are fine, of course, in their place. But unless on stage, or giving a lecture, they’re not a group activity.
So to get back on topic, and state the obvious: conversations are messy, especially when they involve more than two people who know each other well. Trust me to state the obvious, but sometimes we need reminding, that one of the tricks to creating life-like conversation on the page is to break it up.
All too often in fiction I read the kind of focused exchanges that rarely happen to me in real life. Each speaker takes turns to provide nicely balanced sensible prose following the theme of the story. I don’t know about you, but that’s yet to happen to me.