Have you ever tried writing dialogue without all the ‘he said’, ‘she said’ nonsense? It’s an effective technique, though it’s easy to say ‘do this’. Harder to master.
Hemingway set the gold standard – half-page strings of dialogue, often without any directions at all as to the speaker– and it was usually clear as to who said what.
The reason he took that angle is that the onus is on writers to show, not tell – and how better to show than by revealing the esssential meaning through the dialogue, rather than making the reader wade through instructions about it? Hemingway was the absolute master of the technique.
How did he do it? Any dialogue that’s well written should, ideally, speak for itself. The character of the character, shall we say, should come through in the choice of words. Through the context. Through their opinions and wording. If you’ve drawn the character right, the reader will be familiar enough to know what they might say. Perhaps even by such a simple device as a repeated signature phrase – ‘My dear Watson’, for example.
It becomes blatant where the characters are parodic – Passepartout and Fogg in Around the World in Eighty Days, for instance.
Of course direction is sometimes still needed – not least to anchor the start point. You have to add “he said” “she said” somewhere. However, one thing to avoid is a qualifying adjective – ‘he said darkly’, ‘she said brightly’ and so forth.
This is important. Show not tell. Adjectives tell the reader what to think about the dialogue; whereas the trick to quality writing is to make the reader work for the meaning by showing them a direction. Let the reader discover the tone through context or choice of words.
Think pared back. Think character. Think Hemingway.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014