Journalist and crime author Peter Bartram wants a word about writing dialogue…
By Peter Bartram
Author Editor Journalist
“Damn! Blast! Hell!”
A frown wrinkled my brow. “Is this an inconvenient time to call?” I asked.
I was visiting an author to ask him for a few tips on handling dialogue. The author smiled. “Not at all. Always pleased to be interviewed by a journalist. Just wanted to grab attention right at the beginning of the scene. You journalists do it with headlines.” “And you do it by getting the dialogue rolling before setting the scene. Clever.”
“That’s right. But don’t leave it too long to set the scene. You want to intrigue the readers, not frustrate them.”
I nodded. “And then you just get the characters talking to one another?” The author rolled his eyes. “I see you’ve got a lot to learn. In a novel, dialogue isn’t there just to pad out pages between the action. It serves a lot of different purposes.”
“Such as advancing the plot, developing characters and populating your story with distinct voices.”
“Give me an example of advancing the plot.”
“A classic is the scene in a murder mystery where the hero finally unmasks the killer. Just think back to those classic Hercule Poirot stories. He’ll assemble all the suspects in a room and then interrogate them one by one. Each set of questions will move the plot along – advancing it towards its final solution.”
I thought about that for a bit and then said: “I can see that. But, surely, the denouement of a whodunit is a special case. Not all dialogue sets out to unmask a murderer.”
The author smiled. “Quite so. But conflict lies at the heart of the most effective dialogue in novels.”
“In murder mysteries?”
“In most novels. It doesn’t matter about the genre. Romance, sci-fi, fantasy, family sagas – all have one thing in common.”
“The need to resolve a key question or proposition. In a murder mystery, it’s usually to nail the killer. In a romance, the question may be whether the lovers can overcome all the obstacles to find true happiness. In sci-fi whether the hero can save the galaxy from the evil overlord. And so on.”
“And dialogue is the key to resolving those kinds of
“Couldn’t do it without the characters talking to one another. Or, at least, not realistically.”
I flipped a page in my notebook while I considered my next question.
“And all this comes from spinning out conversations?”
“Not spinning out,” the author said sharply.
“And not conversations, either.”
I leaned forward. “I thought you said conversations were at the heart of novels.”
“Wrong. I said dialogue lies at the heart.”
“And there’s a difference?”
“A big one. Think of conversations as spoken speaking and dialogue as written speaking.”
“‘Written speaking’ sounds like an oxymoron.”
The author smiled. “You can’t baffle a writer with long words. But it’s unlikely one of my characters would say that – unless they were pompous or a professor. They’d say ‘contradiction in terms’.”
“Because you want your characters to speak like real people.”
“At last, you’re getting the idea.”
I made a quick shorthand note.
“A lot of writers think the best way to evoke their characters is through description,” the author said.
“Their physical characteristics, what they’re wearing, their personal habits and so on.”
“That’s right. In fact, one of the most powerful ways to bring characters to life is through their speech. After all, real people reveal so much about themselves when they talk – in what they say and the way they say it. So should characters in fiction.”
“But that needs a lot of writing skill, surely?”
“Some, certainly. But the starting point is to know your characters – to understand where they come from, what they want from life, what drives them – and what repels them. When you know how your characters think, you can start to consider how they would speak.”
“You mean such as the language they use?” I asked.
“Their choice of words is important, of course. But it’s not the only thing that defines them. A character may speak fluently or in a disjointed way. They may have an accent. They may speak with verbal tics.”
“Words or phrases they continuously use out of habit. Such as a teenager who constantly uses the work ‘like’.”
“As in ‘It ain’t, like, cool, man.'”
“I think you’ve just written a realistic piece of dialogue. It sounds real because it’s in a distinctive voice. ‘Ain’t’ isn’t grammatical, but it’s what a young hipster might say.”
“So you can break the rules of grammar when writing dialogue.”
“In real life, people don’t have a lot of respect for the strict rules of grammar when they’re speaking. But the art of creating good dialogue is to know when and when not to break the rules.”
The author glanced at his watch. “Just time for one last question, I think.”
“If you had to give budding authors one piece of advice about writing realistic dialogue, what would it be?”
“Believe in your characters as though they were people you know and you will find their true voice.”