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Three writers discuss dialogue

Welcome to our cross-blog, which offers tips on writing. Every month Sydney Smith will discuss some aspect of the writing craft with Jennifer Scoullar and Kathryn Ledson. We welcome your questions and comments; feel free to respond on this page. Let's discuss dialogue:

 Sydney: Dialogue is the most dramatic expression of conflict in narrative. It isn’t simply an exchange of information. Each speaker must have an agenda, and that should emerge in the course of the dialogue sequence. Preferably, it emerges at once, or nearly so. 

A good example is a man and his new bride disputing over where to place the hideous vase her grandmother gave them for a wedding present. 

Amy: Let’s put it on the hall table. Then the old battleaxe can see it whenever she visits.

James: But, honey, it looks like a mutant spaceship. What about if we put it in the toolshed?

Amy: What’ll I tell her when she comes to dinner next week? She’ll ask me about it.

James: Why do you care? You don’t even like her.

Amy: I do like her.

James: You always call her the old battleaxe. You only call her Granny to her face.

Amy: All right, I hate her. I hate the way she inspects the window ledges, like she thinks I wipe them down with my dirty socks.

James: So let’s cancel dinner next week. Then we can bury the vase in the backyard.

Amy: No way! She’s going to die in the next ten years, and I’m the one she’s going to leave her rare coin collection to. The vase is going on the hall table.

James: Sod’s law. When people are hanging out for some old bird to die, she’ll live to a hundred and fifty and leave the coins to a cat home.

And that's the other thing dialogue should do: it should characterise the speakers.

 Kath: Dialogue – my favourite! 

When I turn the page of a novel and see dialogue, I get excited. I lean closer to the book, tuning out all external sounds and distractions. I’m in the story. But why? What’s so good about dialogue? Plenty! Such as:

  • The white space caused by snappy dialogue gives the reader a break. 
  • Dialogue brings you into real time. It plonks you firmly in the scene and the middle of a conversation. You might even feel like you’re intruding on an intimate moment between two lovers. How exciting!
  • Through dialogue, we learn about characters. We hear their all-important voice. The way they speak to each other, the way they react verbally, can tell us so much about who they are. Especially characters who don’t have a point-of-view in the story. It is through their actions and especially dialogue that we discover important things about them.
  • And very importantly, dialogue is a great way to show not tell. 

Here’s an example:

John’s boss Helen stared through the window at the parklands across the way, but John knew she wasn’t really seeing anything. He spoke to her. She took a moment to respond, quietly telling John he needed to call the office and give them the bad news – that the suspect had been apprehended, but that he had a water-tight alibi. John knew this was bad news. Very bad. Helen punched the wall suddenly, shouting a curse. 

By using dialogue we can lift that scene right out of the doldrums and give it zing. As I said, if it’s done well, it’ll draw us closer, bring us right into the scene, in real time, and show us plenty about what’s on those characters’ minds.

You need to call the office, Helen said quietly, staring through the window.

Okay. What’s up? 

She didn’t respond.

Helen? said John, touching his boss’s arm. What’s wrong? 

It’s the suspect. He was in Sydney last night.

Jesus Christ.

Helen slammed her fist into the wall. Goddamit!

When characters speak, we get a sense that something’s happening. And there’s nothing I love more in a story than when stuff happens.

Sydney: Yes, the version with dialogue is a lot better. It's concise. It does everything the scene needed. I agree with all your points about dialogue. Dialogue varies the texture of a story. It takes it from the internal world of the characters’ thoughts and feelings to the external world of dramatic interaction. Both have a role to play in narrative. The trick is to know when to use dialogue and when to use narrative (all those bits except the dialogue).

You know, I've assessed hundreds of manuscripts over the years and discovered that a lot of writers think dialogue is lively just because it’s dialogue. But it’s as dead as a nail if it isn’t used properly. It isn't a substitute for narrative, for example.  

My mother went to the window and said: Oh look, a car’s just appeared at the end of our street. It’s grey and looks expensive. A man in a black suit is driving and another man is sitting in the backseat. I think it’s coming our way. The driver is saying something to the man in the backseat.

That bit of narrative is best shown from the daughter’s POV, as long as it also includes something about how this car’s arrival advances the story. 

And simple exchanges of info are out. 

Hi, I'm Amy. 

Hi, Amy, I'm James. What can I do you for? 

I'm here to meet Amaranth. Is she available? 

I'll just check. If you'll sit over there, I'll call her PA. James calls. Yes, she'll be down in five minutes. Can I get you tea or coffee?

I'd love a foot massage. 

I'll just call our foot masseuse. She's in hot demand... 

Oops. I added in a bit of something unexpected to relieve the tedium of that kind of dialogue. This is how people talk in real life (bar the foot massage) but in narrative, dialogue is heightened and compressed.

Jenny: There are different kinds of dialogue. I quite like the efficiency of indirect dialogue, and it has its place in small doses. Poppy said she didn’t trust me, that she’d never trusted me, that I was always looking for a way to undermine her position on the board.

Then there’s direct dialogue, the most dramatic form. The reader listens in on a conversation.
Poppy said, I know your game. Right from the start I pegged you for a snake and a back-stabber. This just proves how right I was. You never miss a chance, do you? Always working out ways to sink the boot in.

I sometimes mix the two. For example: Poppy went on to list my faults as she saw them – I was arrogant, selfish and insensitive. And you’re lazy too. Poppy’s face grew redder and redder. You’re lazier than a cold lava flow. It’s a quick way to give the gist of a longer conversation. 

One of the things I love about writing dialogue is that it’s not like normal speech. There’s no regret about the undelivered, clever line that’s remembered seconds too late. My characters are on the ball and there’s no insufferable small talk.

And on dialogue tags? I use as few as possible, and am firmly in the said camp. Readers take in said almost subliminally, so it doesn’t intrude into the world of the story. Alternatives to said (muttered, laughed, crowed, whispered, repeated, etc) sound corny to me. I sometimes can’t resist a character snarling his lines, but baulk at adding an adverb. He snarled fiercely? Overkill. One way to avoid a speech tag is to follow the dialogue line with a beat, an action by the speaker that reinforces what he/she is saying.

Oh, and a pet hate of mine – trying to show accent or dialect by torturing the language! Much as I adored Wuthering Heights, I do so wish that Joseph’s broad accent had been conveyed with a carefully chosen Yorkshire word or two, instead of this. (And hallooing responsively is also out of fashion, thank God!) 

What are ye for? he shouted. 'T' maister's down i' t'fowld. Go round by th' end o' t' laith, if ye went to spake to himIs there nobody inside to open the door? I hallooed, responsively.

There's nobbut t' missis; and shoo'll not oppen 't an ye mak' yer flaysome dins till neeght.

Why? Cannot you tell her whom I am, eh, Joseph?

Nor-ne me! I'll hae no hend wi't, muttered the head, vanishing.

And my Golden Rule for dialogue is the same for any other part of my writing. If it doesn’t move the plot forward, don’t do it!

SYDNEY: I so agree with you about Joseph (pictured) in Wuthering Heights. I always laugh when he opens his gob. I think Emily Bronte was so infatuated with Yorkshire dialect that she couldn’t stop herself. I always think the best way to convey dialect or a foreign accent is through grammar and syntax. 

I have to say, though, some writers are good at dialogue and some are not. Those who aren’t tend to keep it to a minimum – which is right, as far as I’m concerned, if you’re ill-at-ease with it

 

Sydney Smith is a writing mentor, teacher and author of short stories, essays, and The Lost Woman, a memoir of survival. She is currently writing The Architecture of Narrative, a book about how to plot and structure fiction. She offers writing tips at www.threekookaburras.com. If you have a question on any aspect of writing, please visit her blog.

Jennifer Scoullar is the author of Wasp Season (Sid Harta), and the romances, Brumby’s Run and Currawong Creek (Penguin), with Billabong Bend due for release by Penguin in May this year. Jennifer’s novels are built around themes of nature and the environment. Check out her website at: www.jenniferscoullar.com.

Kathryn Ledson is the author of Rough Diamond and Monkey Business (Penguin), part of the Erica Jewell series of romantic adventures. You can visit her website at:www.kathrynledson.com.

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