Saturday, September 20, 2014

September 20 2014. How important is dialog in fiction—and how do you learn to write it?

“Always get to the dialogue as soon as possible. I always feel the thing to go for is speed. Nothing puts the reader off more than a big slab of prose at the start."

(Interview, The Paris Review, Issue 64, Winter 1975)”
P.G. Wodehouse


The Angel of the North is a contemporary sculpture, designed by Antony Gormley, which is located in Gateshead, Tyne and Wear, England. It is a steel sculpture of an angel, 20 metres tall, with wings measuring 54 metres across. Wikipedia

The above has nothing to do with dialog. In fact, the first time I saw it, it rendered me speechless. It is a truly magnificent creation.

There was a Gormley in my year at school and I though at first the sculptor might be him. The dates didn’t match. This Gormley must be a younger brother or something—but he did, indeed, go to Ampleforth.

So did Julian Fellowes who writes DOWNTON ABBEY. In truth, I never regarded SHAC (stands for School House Ampleforth College) as creatively inspirational (it wasn’t) but a few of us seem to have survived it nonetheless. The place is now co-educational. Unbelievable! Lucky sods. I’d have killed for a woman in those days.


Back in the 19th century—when a great many fine novels were written—it seems have been quite acceptable for endless pages of prose to go by without being broken up by dialog.

In those days they were into lengthy descriptions and considerable introspection.  And people liked that because there was no TV, movies hadn’t been invented, and even photographs were relatively rare—so if you wanted to find out about a place or a situation, words were your camera. Yes, there were drawings and paintings—but they take a great deal more work to produce so there were less of them.

Today, we are so saturated in knowledge of the world from every form of media that lengthy descriptions are normally unnecessary—because people already know. You merely need to supply a context and a prompt.

As a consequence, fiction manuscripts have become less dense—and, perhaps because dialog drives movies and TV, more dialog is expected. Besides, people find dialog easier to read.

The bottom line is that dialog is immensely important in fiction today—which means that a writer has to develop a facility for writing it.

Dialog needs to operate at a number of levels:

  • It needs to serve the story—advance it, and otherwise contribute..
  • It needs to develop character and be consistent with it
  • It needs to be entertaining.
  • It can’t be too littoral. You want to make things clear—but not too clear. Readers should be kept in a curious fuzz. Think of them as greyhounds. Your business is to dangle the rabbit.
  • Don’t provide too much information at once. Tantalize your readers. Leave them wanting more.
  • It needs to be subtle.
  • It needs to sound natural—even if it isn’t. In real life people tend to be very sloppy in their speech but if you do the same in writing, it will drive the reader nuts.
  • There needs to be a rhythm to it.
  • Every now and then, it needs to be memorable. You don’t need to be memorable with every line—but every now and then you need to impress.
  • It is helpful if it works at a number of levels. For instance, apart from apart from imparting the necessary information, it may also serve to build tension and hint at what might be to come.

The hardest part about writing dialog, as far as I am concerned, is writing in such a way that people sound different. Since I don’t think I’m very good at that, I try and achieve the same effect by introducing people’s reactions to the dialog. This works particularly well when there is a difference between what people say, and what they think.

I like to incorporate considerable humor into my dialog—though mostly in a dry way. And I like the twist—to introduce the unexpected.

I’m naturally articulate—one had to be to survive at home (my mother was highly verbal and my step-father a formidable, witty, knowledgeable, and merciless debater) so I don’t recall having great trouble writing clear dialog. However, I sweated blood—and still do—try to elevate it from serviceable to include the other necessary attributes.

As far as I am concerned, dialog has to sound right—so I will tend to read it over and over again until it has the right rhythm.

It can be helpful if you can convey the right body language.

How do you learn to write dialog?

  • Read so that you can see how others do it.
  • Listen to how people actually speak and record the results.
  • Fail until you succeed. Failure doesn’t get the credit it deserves (except, perhaps, in Silicon Valley). It’s a great teacher—arguably the best of them. Of course it’s a bit depressing—after years have passed and you are still struggling—but, as the military like to say with their normal compassion: “Suck it up.”



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