Finding Dialogue: The Supermarket Sweep

The most difficult part of telling any story is giving characters their own, distinctive voices. In prose you can write in your own style, but as soon as any one character makes a sound, it has to sound like them. Pronunciation, turn of phrase, accent – every character should have these features. So how do you go about researching?

When I did my Masters in Creative Writing, I came to love the supermarket. Often, I’d wander in for no apparent reason, have a look around the shelves, note the price of bread and wander out again wondering what I’d been thinking of when I went in. I did this most days.

Of course, what I was really doing was going in to listen in on people’s conversations and find snippets of dialogue I could use later. I didn’t wander at random, I wandered in order to search out the people who weren’t just doing their shopping, they were having a good old chinwag too.

Do you remember the sudden trend for ‘overheard in —’ pages on Facebook? My favourite was Overheard in Waitrose and the best little bit of dialogue captured was: ‘Mummy? Does Lego have a silent ‘t’ like Merlot?’ I have remembered this particular one for a few reasons.

Firstly, the image it creates is of a yummy mummy, sipping a glass of wine while playing with the bricks. If this kid knows about Merlot, that can only have come from the parents. This gives you a hint of previous conversations that may have occurred and an inkling of their relationship.  

Secondly, you can see that this is written by an adult. We know what children sound like, even posh kids with ponies and organic diets wouldn’t speak like this. It is clearly a mockery of the kind of posh people who shop in Waitrose.

Thirdly, once you’ve thought of Lego spelled ‘Legot’, you can’t get that image out of your head. Somehow, even knowing that Lego is Danish and Merlot is French, you start to doubt that silent ‘t’. There is a kind of logic to the question. It’s a hook. You want to hear more.

And finally, suspending your disbelief for just a moment, how wonderful is the turn of phrase here? The first question mark indicates that the child doesn’t assume the parent will be listening, but it also hints at the rising sound in the word and the hesitancy in the speech. I would bet my hat that this phrase is spoken in a southern accent.

This is the beauty of overheard conversations. I find that much of the speech in novels does a lot for progressing the plot, but is bald in this objective. People have dialect and idiolect and accents. They have phrases they borrow from each other, change the way they speak according to who they are speaking to, catch themselves before they say the wrong thing. I once recognised someone who had been ‘overheard’ on one of these pages just by their particular phrasing.

If you want to hear prime examples of the way real people talk to each other, the supermarket – any supermarket – is a great place to start. You would be amazed by the conversations people have by the frozen peas. Break-ups, gossip, finance, children. Any number of fundamental questions can be found in the aisles, all wrapped up in the mundanity of getting in the weekly shop. For the aspiring writer, the whole world has been laid out before them.

So, next time you are shopping, take your time as you travel around. Notice the different groupings of people: families, couples, friends. Take note of the body language – how do they choose items? Is there a list, is it slapdash, is it a careful choice? Anyone of these people could influence your next character, so here is your chance. Listen to them as they discuss which type of tomato to get, you never know what else they might start talking about…

And remember, always have your notebook at the ready.