ABC’s of Fiction Writing: D is for Dialogue

Posted by on Mar 5, 2015 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

AJ KIRBYWithin the Speech-Marks
The author, unaccustomed to public speaking as he was, gripped the lectern with white-knuckled fists. Cleared his throat. Took a swig of water. Set aside the distraction of imagining the audience naked. Then began: “Today, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls,we’re going to talk about dialogue.”  


The author suffered a momentary mental-blank and fumbled for his notes. But suddenly he found he could no longer decipher his own writing. It looked as though a spider had crawled across the page, trailing ink from each of its limbs. “Dialogue in fiction,” he said in desperation, is a multi-faceted thing.”


It was a stop gap. The equivalent of an “erm” or a “so”. He realized he was not presenting himself particularly well. He had a reasonably strong Manchester accent. He dropped the final ‘t’ in about. He pronounced thing as fingHe stumbled over multi-facetedHe felt he sounded stupid. But as this story was not Trainspotting  you have to be very careful writing in dialect; Irvine Welsh’s highly stylized writing pulls off the trick very well and adds to the psychological realism of the story but other novels fail to walkthe tightrope and end up falling into the class of the ‘undecipherable’ – the author chose not to highlight the fact within the speech marks.


The author recalled a book he’d reviewed back in the day – The Knowledge of Good and Evil by Glenn Kleier.
It hadn’t actually been a bad book, but some of the dialect-writing had jarred with him so much that it had forced the author’s hand into writing a (rare) negative review:“the main problem of the book, over and above the imaginative leaps Mr. Kleier asks us to make, is the fact that he does not seem to trust his readers enough to infer things. He has a tendency to over explain. Never is this more apparent than in his handling of the many different accents in this globetrotting novel.


Whether the accents are Eastern European, Irish, or Caribbean, generally, they are poorly done. Take this example, “The man shrugged his big shoulders. ‘You vere on my vay to the airport.’” This bizarre handling lends nothing to the plot, or to character, and in fact detracts from our reading. The villain in question, once we’ve deciphered what it ishe is trying to say, ends up sounding as though he’s just stepped out of a Bond movie.


Another example is his over-egged Irish accent: “There’s more history ta that isle on there than all the rest o’ Ireland combined.” Which is simply annoying. Most of Mr.Kleier’s readers will have heard an Irish accent before and won’t need to have its own particular tics pointed out to them in minute detailespecially not if the accent then descends into cliché like this: “Seems slayin’ the snake’t wasn’t enough ta convert theCelts though, so Patrick gathered ’em out on the isle an’ scribed a big circle in the earth with ’is staff. Straight away a ’ole opened into Purgatory, swallowin’ up the worst sinners, causin’ the rest ta see the light. An’ ta make sure ’is converts didn’t backslide, ’eleft the cave open, a reminder of the perils o’ sin.”  


The author realized he’d not said anything of note in some time. He loomed over the lectern, desperate to say something of meaning. “Dialogue,” he said, must feel real. Dialogue reveals character. It progresses plot. It fills space. But what occurs within the speech marks cannot be forced.” 


He saw a few heads nodding along in the audience, and decided to reinforce his point by referencing an external source. Bartleby Snopes,” he said, offered their own dialogue-writing tips in a blog of 6th June of this year. They said: “Many authors try to force the story to move through the dialogue. They will attempt to “cheat” by making the characters say unnatural things in order to paint the scene better.”  


Before you start penning your dialogue-only story, take some time to listen to an actual conversation. After you’ve written your story, read it out loud and ask yourself if it actually sounds like people talking. If you can’t imagine someone saying it, then the story probably isn’t going to work.”


“Writing dialogue is a minefield,” said the author, “and there are so many ways you can get it wrong. But if you get it right then you’re laughing. It’s about finding the right style for telling your story in the best possible way. You are the mouthpiece for the story and it is your job to listen out for how the story wants to be told.”


“It is your duty to tell the story simply and effectively. And talking of simple, you should maybe consider Elmore Leonard’s sage advice on dialogue: “Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue,” he said.”


“But making things simple doesn’t mean you have to cut back on your creativity. Good dialogue can make a good story sound great and a great story a masterpiece. Writing good dialogue can open all kinds of creative avenues for your work. Dave Eggers is one of my favorite contemporary writers. His latest novel (June 2014) Your Fathers, Where Are They? And The Prophets, Do They Live For Ever? is written entirely in dialogue. Nothing exists outside of the speech marks. There is no description of character, location, motivation. This rejection of traditional narrative techniques frees up Eggers to write one of the most surprising novels I’ve read in recent years.” Alexander Kalamaroff discusses the dialogue novel in depth on The Rumpus.


The author looked surveyed his audience. Saw a couple of bowed heads, heard a muffled snore. “I think it’s about time I closed,” he said. “But I hope I’ve given you a few things to think about.”

AJ Kirby is the author of the novels The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, When Elephants walk through the Gorbals, Paint this Town Red, Bully, Perfect World and Sharkways. He was one of 20 Leeds-based authors under 40 recently shortlisted for the LS13 competition and his novel Paint this Town Red was shortlisted for 2012’s The Guardian Not the Booker prize. He will be appearing at the 2015 Leeds Big Bookend Festival. All of his books are available for purchase on his Amazon Author Page.  Please visit his official website and blog.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.