Use of dialogue

DialogueDialogue is one of the most difficult and artful aspects of writing fiction – in that it must sound like ‘real’ speech but in no way imitate the everyday speech of ordinary people. It is useless to carry a tape recorder around and tune into other people’s conversations and transcribe these on to a page. It simply will not work.

The reason for this is that in everyday conversation, people say much that is pointless.

Take an ordinary conversation when two people meet at the bus stop.

‘Hello, Gwen. How’re things?’‘Oh, so-so. And you?’

‘Not bad. Got a bit of a cold coming, I think.’

‘It’s certainly the weather for colds.’

‘Yes. But then it might just be a sniffle.’

‘You can never tell, can you?’

‘No…but I’d better be on the safe side. Take a few vitamin Cs tonight.’

‘Good idea. You can’t be careful enough.’

‘Not in this weather.’

Boring? Mundane? Definitely. But this is the way people speak on ordinary everyday occasions. This sort of conversation has no place in fiction. In fiction, dialogue works best when you have two characters in conflict with each other. Sentences trail off or are interrupted. Questions are answered by an aggressive parry, a bit like a smashing return to a fast serve in tennis. Then the game commences. A volley ensues.

Elizabeth Bowen, a British author, puts enormous emphasis on the importance of dialogue. She stressed that dialogue has two – and only two – functions:

  • dialogue must move along the plot
  • dialogue must strengthen and reveal character.

Keep these two points in mind when you are writing dialogue and you will not fall into the trap of writing pointless conversations.

Dialogue requires more art than does any other constituent of fiction. Art in the trickery, self-justifying sense. Why? Because dialogue must appear realistic without being so. Actual realism – the lifting, as it were, of passages from a stenographer’s take-down of a ‘real life’ conversation – would be disruptive. Of what? Of the illusion of the fiction. In real life, everything is said. In fiction, everything is condensed.

Dialogue should be pointed, intentional, and relevant. During dialogue, the characters confront one another. The confrontation is in itself, a scene, an occasion, an event.


Mother/daughter dialogue

The following is an exchange between two people, a mother and a daughter, at odds. It may need to be explained that the daughter addresses her mother by the name of Loretta. The girl’s name is Anthea.

‘Uh, sweetie? I was wondering if you’d like to go to a movie or something tonight? My treat, of course,’ she trails off lamely.She can’t quite look me in the eye. And I recognise the symptoms of new love: the flush on her face, the light in her eyes, the ready breathless laughter, the long telephone conversations. I don’t think I can face another of her futile affairs. I decide not to make this easy for her.

‘I don’t feel like going out tonight. What’s for tea, Loretta?

‘Well, actually, I’ve invited someone for dinner, Anthea.’

She makes a minute adjustment to the flower arrangement. I remain stolid. She has the grace to blush.

‘Uh, you know, that man I met at ceramics? The teacher? Jack?’

‘Oh, you mean the one who hasn’t the manners to come to the front door? The one who pulls up outside and toots the horn? Is that who you mean?

‘You’re not going to spoil this evening for me, are you Anthea?’

‘Heaven forbid, Loretta.’

‘This time…everything’s going to be different, sweetie. I know it. I’ve never felt this way before.’

‘Oh, Loretta, you always say that in the beginning. And we both know what happens in the end, don’t we?’

The reader sees the tension between the two characters and gains a further understanding of the character of both of them from their speech. This is the aim of all dialogue.