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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Learning to Write XXVIII

I’ve managed to avoid talking about dialogue in this series up to now, but eventually it has to be dealt with. I don’t think it’s possible to deal with it adequately in one post. So what I have to say will be supplemented later by a couple of additional posts.

It is a complicated subject because when we make a character talk in a story we are not only attempting to make them speak as they would if they lived and breathed outside of the confines of the story. We also need to ensure their speaking forwards the action of the plot, or gives us a flavour of the speaker’s temperament or character, or says something about the relationships of other characters in the story. We may even want the dialogue to do all of these things at once.

In an earlier post in the series I mentioned that each story should engender a kind of melody or harmony and that every aspect of the story should contribute towards that. Dialogue is no exception here; dialogue should also help carry the tune of the story.

With these things in mind it should become obvious that written sentences can never be merely a transcript of spoken sentences.

As a writer you know, and anyway everyone is always telling you, if you want to write good dialogue you have to learn to listen. But after listening comes another rather long, conscious process of transforming speech into a form which makes it appear as though it had been spoken while at the same time allowing it to performs its designated tasks in the story.

Some writers, a few, have the ability to listen as an innate function. Others do not. In the following posts I shall try to show that, where it is not innate, it can be learned. The only requirement is the recognition on the part of the writer, that this skill needs to cultivated. Because listening, as far as a writer is concerned has to do not only with the sense of what is said, but with identifying pace and mood, the ambulatory or static nature and personal timing in the use of language of those who are overheard.

5 Responses to “Learning to Write XXVIII”

  1. Paul says:

    “but with identifying pace and mood, the ambulatory or static nature and personal timing in the use of language of those who are overheard”
    – Good style John. You’ve hooked us, making us wait for the next episode.
    I’ve come in for a certain amount of criticism over the years for, “finding the conversation at the next table, more interesting than the one I’m sitting at.” It isn’t that of course, i’ve just started building a story in my mind around the people I’ve overheard.
    The downside (apart from being rude to the people I’m with – usually family) is that I forget to notice the nuances of speech that first drew me in, as I get lost in the unfolding story.
    What you seem to be suggesting is a more structured listening, but I suppose I’ll just have to wait for the next lesson?

    jb says: I’m not going to jump the gun here, Paul. I’ll do it soon.

  2. Shawn says:

    A good start to one of the most difficult (for me) aspects of fiction writing. Looking forward to the next installment.

    jb says: Coming shortly, Shawn.

  3. trevor johnson says:

    John, are you going to touch on stream of consciousness? That’s the most troubling part for me. I understand how it works, and consistently come across both great and dull (mainstream) examples of it, but it’s not something I consciously attempt when writing. I feel pretentious when I force it in, and tell myself that I can make the theme apparent without it. Truthfully, I know it could do wonders in reinforcing my themes, but it’s such a struggle that I simply avoid it.

    jb says: I don’t know, Trevor. It’s not something I thought about. Some time last year I did a few posts on Modernism, and I suppose it should have gone in there, but if I remember correctly it didn’t. Still, you’ve got me thinking about it now.

  4. jerry prager says:

    Some years back my playwriting efforts forced me to come up with a theory of dialogue that I called Dialect and Dialectic, Dialect being the tones of individuals in time and space, the shades of localism, regionalism etc that make each voice distinct, the turns of phrases, idiosyncratic word uses, common pleasantries and customary responses, biases and varying degrees of open mindedness, while the Dialectic dealt with the content of the dialogue, the word structures of character interactions, the way that what matters to an individual is sequentially produced in the context of the story’s situations and circumstances against those of other characters and the dynamic that occurs as the ideas develop.
    As Coleridge might have understood it, you can distinguish the differences and similarities between dialect and dialectic, but you cannot divide them.
    Once I figured that out all I had to was practice it for a few decades and presto, I write dialogue real goodly now.

    jb says: Thanks, Jerry. It enhances the series enormously when people bring their own experiences along to the party.

  5. very MUCH looking forward to the continuation of this post!

    jb says: It’s coming, Rebecca. Reminds me of an old writing adage, usually attributed to the neglected 19th century British writer, Charles Reade: Make em laugh; make em cry; make em wait. . . .