Fugheddaboudit. Dialogue on the page is never real. Never. You could go out this moment and tape a story being told on the street and then transcribe it, but even then it will probably never seem absolutely true. But there’s a difference between truth and honesty. A dialogue might not be true, but it must be honest. And what it must do is have the appearance of ease. It must look as if it just naturally slipped its way onto the page. It is there, it is home, it belongs. A properly written piece of dialogue should be the hand within the glove of all your other surrounding sentences. There are so many rules, or suggestions, when it comes to dialogue. Forget the ummm and forget the errs: they don’t translate on the page. Remember that people very seldom say what they mean. Try not to use dialogue to convey information, or at least a slab of obvious information. Interruptions are great. Try writing a conversation between three, four, five people. Let the dialogue work for itself. Use he said and she said, but avoid clumsy descriptions. Certainly forget about the overblown description, the gasping, the exclaiming. The words will work when properly stacked against each other. Make your dialogue distinct from the surrounding description, not just in rhythm but in length too. It can break up the prose beautifully. Have the dialogue be a respite on the page, or have it tee up the description that is about to come. Increase the stumbles and the restarts: a character repeating himself on the page is not necessarily a bad thing. Make each person distinct. Give them verbal tics. But never forget that people talk away from what they really mean. Lies are very interesting when they emerge in dialogue. Have people say things that they don’t actually mean. Make action occur within the conversation. And never begin in the beginning: catch the dialogue halfway through, no need for hellos or howareyous. No need for goodbyes either. Jump out from the conversation long before it truly finishes. Remember that mystery is the glue that joins us: we love whispers and the unheard. Even if using dialect, or patois, or Dublinese, you must realise that there is a reader at the end of the sentence. Don’t confuse. Don’t knock them out of the story. A wee bit is enough to get a Northern Irish accent. Don’t go Oirish on yourself. Don’t fall into stereotype. No arragh bejaysuys and begob. No overdone Southern twang. It’ll make y’all wanna holler. No Jamaican overdose, mahn. No Brooklyn nasal noise. Rather, suggest the music in the reader’s brain in the most subtle way. That’s enough. One little clue. They will take it from there. The dialogue will dialogue itself. Follow it. And, hallelujah, written dialogue doesn’t have to follow grammatical rules. Mess up your sentences as much as you want. Ah, freedom to roam. Freedom to explore. What boundaries can you cross? Do you use quotation marks? Do you use dashes? Do you use italics? The truth is that you can use all three, even within the same novel and perhaps even within the same story. It’s a way of giving an accent to a story. In shorthand terms, quotation marks are the normal way, the dashes are experimental, the italics are a bit tortuously poetic. Using no indicator of dialogue at all is a real bravery on a writer’s part: it can be very effective when done properly. Study the masters. Roddy Doyle. Toni Morrison. Elmore Leonard. Cormac McCarthy. And always remember that what we don’t say is as important, if not more so, than what we do. So study the silences too, and have them working on the page. Listen. They are loud.
Letters to Young Writers | Young Writers Archive