I didn’t even know it was bothering me. A couple of times in writers’ groups I’d struggled to explain what I liked or didn’t like in dialogue and was puzzled that I couldn’t. Then my book group (I go to a lot of groups) decided to read The Salt Path.
Firstly, I recommend it. The true story of a couple in their fifties. The husband is diagnosed with a terminal illness and their house is taken from them after an unwise investment. So, being ramblers, they decide to walk the South West Coast Path, all six hundred miles of it. Great story and a genuine feel of there-but-for-the-grace-of-god. But there’s a problem with the dialogue. Try this:
A Land-Rover pulled up next to us and an old couple got out.
‘Excuse me, what’s going on here, where’s everyone going?’
‘To the theatre. This is the Minack, the famous theatre.’
I’m tempted to turn this into a game. ‘Where shall we meet?’ ‘At Charing Cross, the famous London station.’ People don’t speak like that. It sounds as if the writer had a crisis of confidence and tried to let the reader know – via the speaker – what it was. Which is a shame, because in other parts of the book she uses factual asides, which work perfectly well.
Then there’s this from earlier in the book, where the couple meet a young man.
‘We thought about going to the pub. Are the meals reasonable there?’
‘No. I work in this one; they charge a fortune. They even charge me. That’s why I always go to the visitor centre to buy a pasty before I start work. I mean, that and the girl with the pink hair that sells them.’ He smiled.
‘Sorry to hear that, mate. Oh well, thanks for the tip. It’s tough to find a cheap pub around here.’
‘Tell me about it.’ (This goes on for another half-a-page.)
There is a story of when Arthur Miller went to see a play recommended by Laurence Olivier. It was one of the moribund drawing-room dramas from the early fifties. If a character on one side of the stage spoke, then the next person to speak would be on the other side of the stage. This went on throughout the evening. It was like dead tennis. Olivier, perhaps a little annoyed that his choice had been badly received, insisted Miller choose the next one for himself. Going by the title alone, he picked Look Back in Anger.
The dialogue in Salt Path, has a drawing-room-drama lifelessness. One person says something, the next person responds. Back and forth, back and forth. Perhaps it is genuinely what was said. It’s reported speech, after all. My guess is, however, that in remembering the conversations something got lost, added or flattened out.
So, what constitutes good or bad dialogue?
Both David Mamet and Margaret Atwood (Masterclass) insist that the primary role of dialogue is for the characters to get something from one another. Mark Ravenhill says characters use language to change one another. Alice La Plante, inThe Making of a Story, describes dialogue as something that characters ‘do to one another….a verbal sparring.’
All of this emphasises that dialogue is active. The speakers are trying to do, get, achieve, win, subvert etc. If this sounds a bit aggressive, it could be that what they want is as simple as attention. A friend of mine wrote a scene in which a political canvasser knocks on the door of a local voter. The mother, bored by her many kids, is desperate to have adult conversation; it’s the canvasser who ends up trying to get away. Drama thrives on conflict of any sort.
The character may also fail to speak. There is an extended passage in Anna Kareninain which Levin is unable to decide whether declare his love. The conflict becomes internal, created by his inability to risk the truth.
What else? Alice La Plante lists four functions of dialogue:
- Adding to the reader’s knowledge of the situation. (Knowledge as distinct from facts. Not every character tells the truth.)
- Keeps the piece moving forward.
- Reveals something about the speaker’s personality, both directly and indirectly.
- Dramatises the relationships between characters.
Then there is subtext. What is not being said, but is clear to the reader by its absence.
Also, it’s a truism but dialogue is not everyday speech – which is often a lot more quirky, illogical, random, repetitive, interesting, dull. When thinking about this post I asked fellow writers if they had any thoughts. One of my favourites was ‘dialogue is two monologues that occasionally come into contact with one another.’ But actually, I think this is just a very good definition of everyday speech. In novels, there is usually a great deal more contact between the speakers – if only for economy – unless the writer is trying to mimic the everyday.
La Plante also lists what dialogue is not:
- An important source of facts about a piece. (‘…the famous theatre.’)
- Not good for describing people, places, or objects. (‘What a lovely brown coat you’re wearing.’)
- Absolutely no substitute for direct narrative. If you have basic facts to supply to the reader, put it in the narrative.
- It especially should not be used for extended brooding by a character. (No soliloquys in novels.)
She also makes a very good point about the use of silence or gesture in dialogue. A pause, filled by an action, can set the scene but can also tell us something about the character’s attitude.
‘Are you sure?’ he said.
She put her cup down and looked at him. ‘Yes.’
For me, dialogue is what happens when I try to write dialogue. By which I mean that I very rarely write it from a theoretical point of view (is there enough conflict? Is it revealing character?) I just start writing with two or more characters in mind and see what happens. It is considerably easier if I am clear on what the characters are like. Their choice of words becomes more distinctive, it’s more fun. After that, I’ll go back and edit and add. Most often, I am interested in whether it sounds right. Margaret Attwood says, ‘Dialogue should ring true and be appropriate to the speaker.’
Also, a character can come out of dialogue. I had a character from another country, she spoke in flowing English sentences. One day, I heard her speaking in a stilted form of English and everything about her crystallised. From that point on, it was very clear to me who she was.
Most ‘How to…’ books for novels suggest character-attribute lists. As if, once you have written them, dialogue will flow. Ready, Set, Novel lists eleven bits of information: e.g. sex, age, appearance etc. The Manuscript Makeover suggests over fifty aspects of physical appearance and emotional/intellectual disposition. These include teeth size and colour, body smell, humour and the expression of it.
I have tried these exercises over the years, but I’ve found that I can create a list of twenty aspects and still be no clearer about the fundamentals of the character. I find it easier to do it the other way around. Once I have a basic idea of who they are, I get them talking. Crucially, I hear their attitude, what they think of themselves or other people, how they present themselves. All the character details then fall into place.
For me, dialogue also comes out of movement, it’s physical. Aaron Sorkin (Masterclass) acts out his dialogue. Dickens had a mirror where he would contort his face to match the character. When I write, I see the characters moving, interacting, gesturing. The words are just part of that dance.
As for attributions, I prefer he said/she said, when it becomes unclear who is speaking. It’s a bit like the word ‘the,’ unless it’s overdone, no one notices it. I have a problem in my current novel in that the two main characters are women. I can’t rely on he said/she said and the use of their names to establish the speaker occasionally becomes noticeably repetitive.
Then there is the question of speech patterns and dialect. Nineteenth-century writing involved a lot of language-as-it-is-spoken. This from George Eliot’s Adam Bede:
‘Well, I’m half a mind t’ ha’ a look at her tonight, if there isn’t good company at th’ Holly Bush. What’ll she take for her text? Happen ye can tell me, Seth, if so be as I shouldna come up i’ time for’t.’
These days, unless you are part of that culture (e.g. Irvine Welsh), you are open to accusations of appropriation or condescension. Even worse, it sounds naff. Also, with globalisation and the fact that we are reading and watching the same things, distinctions in local speech are disappearing. When I went to research in Yorkshire, I found the main verbal tic was saying ‘Y’alright?’ as a greeting. If I put that into my novel every time characters met, the repetition would be grating. Alice La Plante suggests putting in the occasional distinctive word.
In my opinion, difference comes back to attitude and that can be culturally influenced. There is still a flavour of f-you as a Yorkshire trait. I was told that one of the guys who runs fishing trips for tourists believes they can ‘fish and fuck off.’ With some writers, you can detect the attitude from the speech patterns. This, from John le Carre’s The Honourable Schoolboy where a member of the secret service tries to get hold of a department head and comes up against his secretary.
‘I can only tell him,’ Pym warned. ‘I can tell him and I can see what he says and I can ring you back. His card is veryheavily marked this month.’
This is Pym’s only appearance in the novel and, just from the repetition of ‘can’, I know who he is.
For me, there is also something about dialogue being interesting. I like it when people say odd things. Particularly if they lead out of the conversations. In The Dresser, Norman says, ‘Who then?’ Sir replies, ‘Who then what?’ Who then what? Terrific.
I want to be entertained, amused, appalled, saddened. If the dialogue can do that, all the better.
We’ve already seen that exposition is not the role of dialogue. People will only explain things if they’re forced to (unless they’re a Bond villain). But sometimes there is a lovely moment, in the writing, when it arises naturally and with purpose. My novel is set in a Yorkshire fishing village. I know that fishing has all-but died out in such villages. Even larger towns such as Whitby are now tourist centres. The fishing industry proper has moved up to the larger ports in Scotland. I can’t have my characters explain this to one another, as they’d already know. At the start of the novel, Jade, a local fisherwoman, is trying to sell her paltry catch to the local wholesaler:
It took an age for Bill Nayes to come out from the back, scratching his head, his beanie riding up over his ear.
‘Candy Crush, is it?’ said Jade.
‘Hard work, that’s what.’
‘What level you on?’
He nodded at her catch. ‘What you got?’
She put the bag on the counter. They stared into it.
‘I’ll take gold.’
Not even a smile.
‘Haven’t they put prices up at the restaurant?’ said Jade.
‘No business of mine.’
‘It’s exactly your business.’
He looked at her, straight, ‘No business of yours, I meant.’
‘Jade,’ he said, ‘when they drop a bomb on the big port, I’ll come to you on bended knee. Right now, I’m having trouble shifting them as it is. And what with the uncertainty.’
Proud of that, I was.
There is much more to say about dialogue. Manuscript Makeover includes a list of thirteen characteristics of successful dialogue, e.g. keep it short, make use of incomplete sentences, as well as many of the characteristics I have mentioned here. But as with most of these posts, this is an attempt to think through a subject for myself. So, what do I take away from it? That dialogue should ring true, reveal character and dramatize power struggles. And most of all, it should hold the attention and be interesting.
Not too much to ask…
(I am grateful to the London Bridge Writers for a very useful WhatsApp discussion, and to Annabel for book recommendations.)