One of the hardest skills to master in writing fiction is dialogue. It’s extremely difficult – even well established authors often struggle.
When it comes to quick-fire dialogue, it’s hard to go past Hemingway – check out Farewell To Arms, for instance. Much of the time he didn’t even have to put ‘he said’, ‘she said’ – the speakers were obvious from his choice of words, and their speech painted their characters in ways that made them alive. Brilliant, brilliant technique. But also one that’s very difficult to master.
The reason is that people don’t talk in prose. Try transliterating a conversation – it’s full of half-sentences, broken phrases and misplaced words. That’s because words are only half the way we communicate; there also body language – gestures, expressions, even the context. Imagine two people talking about a flight of passing birds. They might not mention what they’re looking at, because they both know.
Written English is a different ball game. It’s linear – it presents one idea at any moment. It’s a thread. So you, as author, have to disentangle not just the broken dialogue people actually use, but also present the simultaneous experience of conversation – context, body language and so forth – as a string of words. What’s more, ideally the style should be not dissonant from the general style of your book – you’re providing a consistent reading experience as well as a story.
Just to add spice to the whole issue, dialogue is also the way that your characters convey their reality. It will make them come alive.
1. Speech (disentangled, processed and reinterpreted by the mind) usually parses in iambic pentameter (“I WANdered LONEly AS a CLOUD’).
2. Different people have different patterns of speech – but not too much. Overstating in your novel can appear contrived.
3. Don’t spell out speech characteristics. Bring them out – for instance, in the way a character reacts. “Fred’s mouth dropped open. ‘Will ya look at that!’ We know he’s surprised.
4. Convey some of the background as your own prose, around the speech – don’t try to work it into the dialogue – avoid: “‘Look, Wilma, at that flight of Pterodactyls over there where I am pointing, with the light on them.’”
5. Vary lengths. People don’t always talk in four-sentence blocks. Sometimes they just get in one word. Multiple quick-fire snap back-and-forth dialogue can be effective, sometimes.
6. Sometimes, not speaking is effective – focus on the reaction.
And finally – the piece de resistance - do what John Steinbeck suggested – read it aloud as you write it.
Do you have a technique for dialogue? What are your experiences writing it? I’d love to hear from you.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012