Below is a script that I wrote accidentally.

Let me explain that: I work endlessly on dialogue. On trying to perfect the art of making characters in books speak the way people actually do.

It’s going to read wrongly to my crime book audience if I have a Melbourne underworld figure say to a policeman: ‘Why yes, I was quite perturbed to discover that my house had been targeted by surveillance devices.’

Not to labour the point but: ‘You fucking bugged me, you pricks?’ sounds slightly more authentic, even if – gasp – uncouth.

So, yes, I work on dialogue. Part of this is listening to how people speak in the everyday world. Listening closely. This sometimes even involves sitting on public transport with headphones firmly over my ears, but no music actually playing through my iPod. It means I can listen in on the conversations around me, while people speak freely because they glance at the only other guy in the seats (that would be me) and he’s plugged into music, staring out the window and not even listening, right?

A Melbourne tram. People packed together, chatting ... Author gold.
A Melbourne tram. People packed together, chatting … Author gold.

I know. It’s appalling behaviour. Once, at a writers’ festival I was at, another author mentioned a similar but different eavesdropping technique, and the audience was horrified. When the audience swung collectively to me, expecting me to share their dismay; who knows, maybe bodily escort this bounder from the building? … I instead fessed up to my own tram/train headphone scam. It was pretty funny. I managed to talk the crowd out of going to gather pitchforks or flaming torches by explaining the key point: that we’re not actually eavesdropping because we want to monitor their conversation. (Well, I’m not. I can’t speak for the other guy. For all I know, he’s a freak.)

I’m listening to the patterns of words, the terminology, the flow of it. When people interrupt each other or have ways of speaking. Flicking through my notebook now, I’ve found my notes of a recent observation: a woman who asked everything as a question. ‘We were living in Bairnsdale back then, weren’t we? I was working in the bookshop, wasn’t I?’ To somebody who clearly didn’t know the answers to those questions, because she was being told the story. I’m definitely going to use that speaking mannerism somewhere.

But do I care that that woman lived in Bairnsdale? No. Do I give even the shadow of a ghost of a care if she worked in the bookshop or the butcher? Nope.

Just as I could not care less, riding a tram, that Beccy was, like, so out of line speaking to Gabby like that because, shit, it was Gabby who told her in the first place and she totally didn’t have to. She was doing her a favour, right, and then Beccy gives her shit about it.

I’m only absorbing the way that was said.

The second way I work on dialogue is to write entire pages where there is nothing but words being spoken. I invent characters and they talk to one another. No descriptors, no ‘he asked, eyebrow raised’, not a single explanation of whether they’re in a room or a bar or on top of a mountain or facing certain death or walking their dogs. Nothing. Just pure dialogue.

And that led to Dave & Marie. I was vaguely imagining a scene in LA. Originally I called it ‘A conversation in five parts’ but then I realised I had stumbled onto something more than a  dialogue training exercise and I started doing drafts and refining the words. But I liked that it had no explanations; no padding. And kept it that way.

So this is an evolved, final version of what is usually simple dialogue practice. I would love to see it performed on stage.

A Play:

Dave & Marie – A conversation in five parts.

By Nick Place

(Copyright Nick Place, May 2010)

i.

Cock of the Roost Productions. Can I help you?

Um, hi. Yes. My name is David McCarthy. I was wanting to talk to Larry Cockington please.

I’m sorry, Mr Cockington is not available.

I think he’d like to speak to me. I have a script that I think he’ll find quite interesting off the back of his recent feature, Death by Shock.

Mr Cockington is in meetings. I’m sorry.

I’m happy to wait if he’s on the phone.

I’m sorry. Mr Cockington is not available.

Um, you actually told me Mr Cockington was in meetings last time I rang. And the time before that.

Mr Cockington has a lot of meetings, sir. It’s what he does.

Call me David. I’ve already mailed the script so he’s probably read it by now.

Cock of the Roost Productions does not make a practice of accepting unsolicited scripts, I’m afraid. It will be returned to you, if you included a sender’s address.

Look, I don’t mean to be rude but – what’s your name?

Marie, sir.

Please, call me David. I hate “sir”. We’re not machines. We don’t need walls and titles. I’m only trying to have a conversation with you.

I’m Marie, David.

Great. Thank you, Marie. I honestly appreciate that. Can I ask you one question: how does one get to have a meeting with the elusive Mr Cockington?

One doesn’t, David.

He doesn’t ever see a script writer or entertain a pitch, under any circumstances?

Not from a cold caller, no. I’m sorry, David.

I think he’d love this script, Marie.

That’s entirely possible, David.

But you can’t put me through.

No.

Marie, I feel very passionate about this. It’s my life.

I can tell, David.

I’m going to keep trying, if that’s okay. I’m going to keep phoning until he takes my call.

We live in a democracy, David.

What’s that supposed to mean?

It doesn’t mean anything. It means you’re welcome to keep calling. I can’t stop you. It’s your time you’re wasting.

And yours, huh?

That’s alright. I’m paid to answer the phone.

Beep.

Um, David. That’s another call coming through.

OK, I heard it. You’re sure you won’t put me through, Marie?

Very sure.

Then I’ll ring again in a week or so.

If you feel you must.

ii.

Cock of the Roost Productions. Can I help you?

Marie? It’s David.

Oh hi, David. How are you?

I’m fine. Pretty good. What about you?

Very well, thanks David.

I was wanting to talk to Mr Cockington please.

I’m sorry, David. He’s tied up in meetings.

Of course he is.

Is there anything else I can do for you, David?

Do you know how many times I’ve phoned now, Marie?

I can’t possibly imagine, David. It would be quite a few times.

Forty-seven times, Marie. Once a week. It’s almost our first anniversary of you saying that Larry Cockington is in a meeting.

He actually is in a meeting at the moment.

Unlike all those other times, huh?

Well … almost a year, huh? I’ll have to make you a cake.

I could send you the script as a present! You could leave it lying on Larry’s desk.

That’s not going to happen, David.

I guess not.

Is there anything else I can help you with, David?

How’d your father’s operation go, Marie? If you don’t mind me asking.

Oh, not at all. He’s fine. A lot better. It’s a miracle what they can do these days. There’s barely a scar! They went in with one of those pin-hole cameras attached to a cutting instrument the size of a match, and totally cleared the valve.

That’s great news. Is he home yet?

Was home the next day. He’s got to take it easy for a week or so but they say he’ll be better than new.

I’m really glad to hear that. I’ve moved, you know.

Really? You did it. When did that happen?

Saturday. Packed up my New York apartment and now I’m calling from a couple miles away.

That’s a big move, David.  I’m certain it will be great for you, being in the thick of Hollywood.

I really hope so. In fact, I need some drinking buddies. Hey, I’ve got an idea! Is Larry there? I’ll see if he wants to go out.

I’m sorry, David. I’m afraid he’s in a meeting. Nice try.

It’s all I can do, Marie.

iii.

Cock of the Roost Productions. Can I help you?

Marie? It’s me.

Hey! How are you?

I’m fantastic. How are you?

Same.

My ears are full of music. So is my heart.

Oh please!

Seriously, I had a beautiful evening. Thank you.

No, thank you. I really enjoyed myself as well.

Maybe we can do it again sometime?

I’d love that, Dave.

So would I.

Let’s do it soon. There’s a Bach concert at the Hollywood Bowl in a couple of weeks I was keen to go to. We could start there.

I’d love that. I’ll even try to find out who Bach is between now and then.

You’re hopeless. I want to see you again.

Ditto, Marie. Very much ditto. Can I talk to Larry?

No.

iv.

Cock of the Roost Productions. Can I help you?

Hey babe, it’s me.

Dave? I can hardly hear you.

It’s the car phone. Sorry. You know how the hands-free keeps playing up. How’s work?

Same old. It’s okay. Dave, could you pick up Jake from crèche tonight? I think I’m going to have to stay back until after six.

Sure. I’m just heading to a meeting with Tim Martin but then I’m clear.

Fantastic. Thanks, honey. I’m pretty sure I’ll be home by seven.

I’ll start making dinner. Aim to serve at 7.30.

We need milk too, babe.

Oh ok. Christ, I hope I can remember after the meeting. I’m driving so I can’t make a note.

You’ll remember. Your memory is sharp. Good luck with the meeting.

Thanks, babe.

I better go, hon. I’m really busy.

No worries. Oh, one more thing. Can I speak to Larry?

No.

v.

Cock of the Roost Productions. Can I help you?

Uh, hello? Who is this please.

This is Larry Cockington. Who’s calling please?

Um, Mr Cockington? I’m Marie’s husband, David.

David! Hi. What can I do for you.

It’s Marie, Mr Cockington. Can I call you Larry?

Of course. What’s wrong? Is there something wrong? Marie hasn’t turned up for work yet.

I’m afraid that —– I’m sorry. I’ll try to compose myself. —–

I’m afraid that Marie has died, Larry.

What – ? Oh my God? How?

She’s just dead.

What do you mean?

She died. Last night.

Oh my Lord. David, I am so sorry. Was it a heart attack?

It’s difficult for me to talk about, Larry. But it’s a tragedy.

Oh, this is terrible. With poor little Jake. How old is he now?

He’s 11, Larry.

That poor kid. Poor you! Oh God.

I thought I had better tell you, Larry.

Of course, of course. Thank you. She was with me for 17 years, you know.

I know. I met her about four years after she started there.

When’s the funeral, David? Have you even thought about any of that yet?

Not really. We will. There’s a man coming around in about an hour.

I just don’t know what to say, David. She was a wonderful woman.

She certainly was, Larry. Thank you.

Well, make sure you let me know when the funeral is. Or, what am I saying … you’ve got other things to worry about. I’ll just keep an eye on the Times classifieds.

Thank you, Larry. It would be great to meet you at last.

You too, David. I’m sorry it will be in such horrible circumstances.

Me too. OK then …

Larry?

Yes, David.

I know this isn’t the best time but there’s this script I’ve been wanting you to look at …

The end