Notes on dialogue
I try to have a snatch of dialogue on the first page of a novel. It suggests to the reader that this is a book in which something is going to happen; it isn’t just going to blether on and on. The attempt, I find, helps the writer formulate the book so the opening pages are not all back story or description – probably better to avoid – but is the actual setting of a scene. That said, I do not always manage it myself. I am nevertheless very conscious that large blocks of tightly packed unbroken print at the beginning of a book can put a reader off – especially if the novel comes in e-book form. Space on the page and typography is more and more the writer’s business.
Tutors of many creative writing classes will tell you that it is bad form to start a novel with dialogue, but I’ve done it often enough. It depends what the dialogue is. No good if it’s:
‘Hello, Betty,’ smiled Joan, opening the door to her friend next door, ‘Do come in. Can I offer you a cup of tea?’
‘Hello Joan,’ replied Betty. ‘Yes thank you, that’s very kind of you.’
If on the other hand you start with:
‘Please put the gun down, Betty,’ said Joan. ‘You can’t shoot me because of a pact we made when we were young.’
‘A pact’s a pact,’ said Betty. ‘I’ll be doing you a favour. You’ve lost your marbles. Getting married proves it,’ you might get away with it.
Cut out the hellos, the goodbyes, anything boring, anything the reader can fill in for themselves. Just as a film editor leaves out the obvious bits, so must the novelist cut to the chase. Don’t have your characters sip wine or tea (boring) or interrupt the passage unless it’s by something really interesting. ‘The cup of tea fell off the mantelpiece and shattered, as if propelled by its own volition’. When they’re reading dialogue your readers are listening, not watching. When they’re reading action they watch in their heads. Keep your sentences short. When you the writer are reflecting on action or character you can afford to make your sentences longer.
Do not be afraid of the word ‘said’. It is such a little ordinary word no-one notices the crime of repetition, so long as you don’t qualify it.
‘You bitch’, he said.
‘You bastard,’ she said’ works.
You bitch,’ he said icily.
‘You bastard’ she said angrily’ just doesn’t, unless you’re more interested in sales than style.
If you must qualify ‘said’ give it a sentence to itself, using adjectives if you can, not adverbs. Be as sparing as you can be with ‘ly’ words.
‘You bitch’ he said. His voice was level, cold as ice.
‘You bastard,’ she said. She seemed more angry than surprised.
And don’t repeat names just to get out of another ‘said’.
‘I saw a nice pair of shoes in the shopping mall, Mary.’
‘Did you, Joan?’ sounds forced. Though you can get away with
‘Mary, I have to tell you I saw your husband in the shopping mall,’ said Joan works, because people do use names in real life when imparting bad news, seldom otherwise.
Try to keep what is said short, line by line. Let no-one speak for too many unbroken lines at a time. Put what is said into reported speech if it’s in the least boring. ‘And they agreed to meet under the clock at Waterloo,’ is better than line after dialogue line of someone giving long instructions about where to meet. If you are trying to demonstrate how long-winded and boring the speaker is, by all means put it in, but end by saying ‘She yawned, and agreed.’ Make your words work for you, and if they’re not working, leave them out.
You can have people talk for pages at a time if they’re speaking, say, to a therapist or a policeman, and the reader is looking for clues as to character – but don’t use it to carry your back story: it’s there to illuminate character or to move the story on, not otherwise, Readers are quick to recognise a lack of literary skill.
Don’t try and replicate real speech, complete with ums and ah’s and I mean – a novel is a written document and speech is formalised to a degree – leave them out. Be sparing with a literal translation of regional accents. One dropped g or missed h, one ee bah goom in every twelve is about right. Suggest but don’t insist – readers get the gist; don’t tire them with detail.
Go through a section of dialogue, paying attention to what I have said. If it now reads better, stick to it. If it doesn’t, ignore what I’ve said and carry on the way you’re going. It’s your novel, not mine. And the proof of good advice is whether or not it works.