‘Quit yo’ jibber-jabber, fool.’

When I began to write – many, many moons ago – I was uncomfortable about conversations. Not dialogue per se (although I should have been) but how to move the plot on when people are just talking about the metaphorical weather. It’s a tricky balance. Every single word matters in a novel, but characters need space to be real people with real motivations.

I think there was a sense of fear in me. I didn’t want to put in my stories the type of inconsequential nonsense that most of us wile away our lives with. I wanted people to get on with the action and all conversations, therefore, had to be tension-filled, dynamic and relevant to the plot.

Now I’m on my eighth complete rewrite of Night Shift and I find that the key change I’m making is to slow things down. I’m trying to add depth and so I’m teasing out the chatter, trying to build subtleties into people and to make them more rounded. It’s difficult. There needs to be tension and subtext in every scene: how can idle talk carry any real information?

Everything matters. The clothes a person wears, their mannerisms, their choice of words – all are to some extent political decisions. When two people meet the first thing they do is try to establish their relative statuses. This is natural. Add in secrets and fears and the uncertainty that the other person might be lying to them – well, that’s almost a plot already.

Of course it helps that I already have a plot. All I have to do now is remember that key mantra: what does this person want to get out of this conversation? Even if it’s only to make a new friend, or to get through without embarrassing him/herself, that’s an aim.

It also gets a lot easier when you really know who your characters are. The realisation has been forced upon me that I didn’t know my cast as well as I should: by focusing on motivation I find my fear of idle chatter has been somewhat diminished. Now my protagonist has to face people who are afraid of him because of his (incorrectly) perceived status, and each of them will portray that fear in a different way. One particular character will respond by aggressively reinforcing his superiority. Others will be circumspect, standoffish. The trick is to establish this through words and body language – subtly, so that the motives are never said but make sense when more of the plot is revealed.

It’s difficult. It’s even more difficult to try and do this in a scene I’ve already rewritten seven times and is so fixed in my mind that any alteration is an effort – but that’s my own fault and there’s no use bitching about it now. But finally I feel I’ve overcome my fear of chit-chat. Every word in your novel has to have meaning, yes – but sometimes this meaning is better hidden than overt.

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