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For some forms of storytelling, dialogue is not only important, it’s essential. Read the script of almost any play, television piece or film and you’ll see that, quite rightly, dialogue is at the centre of everything. Descriptive prose, on the other hand, takes a backseat, if it’s present at all (in the case of many scripts for plays, the prose goes no further than the occasional ‘exeunt’).
This is not the case for the majority of prose-based fiction – that is to say, short stories, novellas and novels. For these stories, descriptive prose is the lifeblood of the medium. A writer’s ability and skill in visualising a landscape, in bringing to life a character through the description of their features, in creating an unspoken subtext between two friends through body language – these are all the writer’s gift. It’s what makes prose so special and unique compared to other written media.
But does that mean that dialogue is an unimportant aspect of the short story, novella or novel? Of course not. Most stories contain plenty of dialogue, and for many writers it’s one of the most challenging literary craft skills to master.
So let’s dive a little deeper and see what those challenges are exactly, as well as how the best writers overcome them.
The great Irish writer John Millington Synge was a stickler for realism in dialogue. So much so that he rented a room in the Aran Islands one summer and recorded the conversations he heard from the neighbouring family, picking up on their inflections, mannerisms, vocal tics, etc. He wanted his writing to perfectly ape the poorer folk living off the west coast of Ireland.
Handy as this level of detail would prove to be for Synge (especially given that he was predominantly a playwright), I doubt that it would be as useful for today’s prose storyteller.
As we’ve touched upon in previous Fetish Literature articles, fiction is rarely a rigorously accurate reflection of ‘real-life’ experiences. Rather, we can think of it more as a stylised rendition of reality.
And dialogue is no different.
In everyday conversation, there is plenty of superfluity. Tangents, lost threads, repetition – these are all conversational traits that are present in practically all ‘real-life’ dialogue. But in fiction, they can distract from a story’s essential themes and direction.
The best fiction writers are acutely aware of the nuances of ‘real-life’ dialogue, and they’ll take exactly what they need for their work, whether that’s the unsure umming and arring to demonstrate a character’s lack of conviction; or a character who talks in verbose tangents to emphasise their scatterbrain thinking. If a particular manner of speaking will enrich the story and its characters, then it will stay. Otherwise, it won’t make it past the first draft.
In great writing, dialogue is never unrealistic. It helps to cement the texture of the fictional universe. It adds to the story’s credibility. But it will rarely, if ever, imitate real speech down to the syllable.
‘Good dialogue is not real speech – it’s the illusion of real speech.’
– Ernest Hemingway
One of the big issues that aspiring writers come across is the use of verbs of attribution in dialogue, i.e. the ‘he said’ / ‘she said’ that often follows a line of dialogue, letting the reader know who is speaking.
The temptation for many writers is to use more expressive verbs, such as ‘he screamed’ or ‘she whispered’. It is a simple and effective way of attributing emotion to a character’s way of speaking. However, this type of verb attribution is often shunned in favour of the more bare-boned ‘he said’ / ‘she said’.
Why is this the case?
Literary purists would argue that the writer’s objective is to produce descriptive results as artfully as possible. ‘Show, don’t tell,’ as the old maxim goes. Rather than simply describe a character as ‘angry,’ it should be described how that anger is manifesting, i.e. with bulging eyes or clenched fists. And the same applies to dialogue. If the writer wants to convey emotion in the way a character speaks, they should do so with prose around the dialogue, rather than the verb of attribution.
Let’s consider the following passage of dialogue between a blogger and his friend.
‘What do you mean you haven’t signed up to my literary newsletter?’ the blogger screamed. ‘What sort of a friend are you?’
‘I’m sorry,’ his friend whispered. ‘I’m just not that into literature.’
As you can see, the above passage contains expressive verbs of attribution (‘screamed’ and ‘whispered’). Now, let’s consider the same scene again, this time using ‘he said’ / ‘she said’, while also trying to convey the same character emotions.
‘What do you mean you haven’t signed up to my literary newsletter?’ the blogger said, his voice trembling and loud, bouncing from one wall to the other.
‘I’m sorry,’ his friend said. ‘I’m just not that into literature.’ The words tumbled so timidly from her lips, they barely had the strength to make it to the blogger’s ears.
Neither version of this passage will be part of a prize-winning piece of fiction, but we can see how changing the verb of attribution can have an impact on the dialogue dynamics.
The first example directly tells the reader that the blogger is screaming (and therefore probably angry) and that his friend is whispering. And while there’s nothing wrong with this (it is, after all, nicely succinct), it does prevent the writer from flexing their descriptive muscles.
The second example conveys similar emotions to the first without explicitly stating them. The fact that the blogger’s voice is ‘trembling and loud’ tells us that he is in a state of emotion; and that his friend’s response tumbles ‘timidly from her lips’ suggests the same whispering tone given in the first example. However, this version allows the writer to be more expansive with their prose in a way that the first example doesn’t.
As we’ve seen, dialogue exchanges are often broken up with prose – this could be as the aforementioned verb of attribution, to describe the mood of the speakers, or maybe just to keep a reader grounded in the advancing plot.
The problem is, these interruptions of prose can break up a building sense of rhythm, particularly during important moments of conflict. One solution adopted by great writers, especially more contemporary ones, is to omit almost all prose between lines of dialogue. Take, for example, this extract from the short story ‘Katy’ by Bryan Washington (you can read the Fetish Literature analysis of that story by clicking here, by the way):
You didn’t come back for my dad, said Noah.
I know, I said.
You’re right, I said. I’m sorry.
Don’t be fucking sorry, said Noah.
But, I said, I wasn’t entirely sure you wanted me around.
I’m serious. Maybe that’s what surprised me. Had to see it for myself.
You left, said Noah, you left me.
As you can see, this is a pretty bare-bones example of dialogue (there aren’t even any quotation marks!). However, it’s also a wonderfully written exchange that ticks so many of those oh-so important boxes that makes great literature great. In the context of the story, it’s the showdown between the two main characters, the moment when their conflict is finally addressed. Is it lacking additional prose to guide the reader? I wouldn’t say so. It’s perfect as it is, and any additional text would surely sully a good piece of dialogue.
So can we say that less is more when it comes to the in-between bits of prose in passages of dialogue? Not so fast. Let’s look at another example, this time from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
‘I’ve got a man in England who buys me clothes. He sends over a selection of things at the beginning of each season, spring and fall.’
He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them, one by one, before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel, which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table in many-colored disarray. While we admired he brought more and the soft rich heap mounted higher — shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange, and monograms of Indian blue. Suddenly, with a strained sound, Daisy bent her head into the shirts and began to cry stormily.
‘They’re such beautiful shirts,’ she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. ‘It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such — such beautiful shirts before.’
After the house, we were to see the grounds and the swimming-pool, and the hydroplane and the mid-summer flowers — but outside Gatsby’s window it began to rain again, so we stood in a row looking at the corrugated surface of the Sound.
‘If it wasn’t for the mist we could see your home across the bay,’ said Gatsby. ‘You always have a green light that burns all night at the end of your dock.’
This iconic passage is a pivotal part of the book. It demonstrates Gatsby’s frivolous approach to wealth (and how Daisy is captivated by it), the former lovers’ lost relationship, signs of Gatsby’s modernity versus Daisy’s husband’s more old-school money. It’s also, as you can see, a passage of dialogue spliced with big chunks of prose. Would you describe these descriptions as superfluous? I wouldn’t. In fact, I’d say it’s these in-between morsels of prose that make this such a powerful passage. We don’t want this scene of the three characters tossing Gatsby’s magnificent, colourful shirts around to be described in dialogue. For a start, they don’t have time to talk. They’re too busy living in the moment. Therefore, we the reader must rely on narrative prose to tell us what’s happening.
So how can we marry these two apparently disparate ideas when it comes to prose around dialogue? Should it be stripped back, in the style of Washington, or more flowery, like that of Fitzgerald? You can probably guess that there’s no single right answer here. It depends on the moment in the story, the mood of the piece, the writer’s unique style. While Washington is a relatively minimalist writer, Fitzgerald is a flamboyant one; while Washington’s scene describes the moment where two old friends finally air their pent-up grievances, Fitzgerald’s is a sudden, ecstatic release of child-like joy.
What you will remark upon next time you’re reading a great book is how controlled the best writers are at managing the in-between bits of prose in passages of dialogue. When done well, it never feels too much or too little. Instead, it’s just right.
‘It’s dialogue that gives your cast their voices, and is crucial in defining their characters.’
– Stephen King
The final point I’d like to make on dialogue is around characterisation, i.e. how can dialogue help in creating compelling characters?
It makes sense that dialogue should be used by a writer to bring additional dimensions to their characters. After all, one of a writer’s most challenging and fundamental tasks is bringing their universe to life – making it as visceral, believable and engaging to a reader as possible. And dialogue is a great way of achieving that. But how?
In our everyday lives, we come across people with plenty of different ways of speaking. This could be accents, diction, expressions, verbal tics and much more. It’s also an important part of how we identify certain people. Think about how a skilled impressionist can conjure up the personality of a well-known person by simply imitating their voice. It’s a key part of who we are, and one that the best writers use to bring their characters to life.
In fiction, this is what we might refer to as a character’s voice. When a character has a strong voice, it means that they are instantly recognisable. We know who’s speaking, without the writer necessarily telling us.
One of fiction’s great examples of strong voice in the novel is JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. The protagonist’s, Holden Caulfied, voice comes particularly to the fore when juxtaposed against that of other characters. Take, for instance, this passage from early on in the novel where Caulfield discusses his expulsion from school with the kindly history teacher, Old Spencer.
‘What did Dr. Thurmer say to you, boy? I understand you had quite a little chat.’
‘Yes, we did. We really did. I was in his office for around two hours, I guess.’
‘What’d he say to you?’
‘Oh. . . well, about life being a game and all. And how you should play it according to the rules. He was pretty nice about it. I mean he didn’t hit the ceiling or anything. He just kept talking about Life being a game and all. You know.’
‘Life is a game, boy. Life is a game that one plays according to the rules.’
‘Yes, sir. I know it is. I know it.’
There’s no need for any ‘he said’ / ‘she said’ in this exchange. Thanks to Salinger’s literary skills, we know exactly who’s talking. In fact, I’d say we have a perfect picture in our heads of what they both look like. Old Spencer is caring and paternal, but firm. Caulfield is respectful (he addresses Old Spencer as ‘sir’) but also has a certain way of speaking that comes across. It’s casual, unsure of itself. He says ‘I guess’ and ‘You know’. These aren’t mannerisms that a confident, assured speaker would use. It’s the language of a child who is being reprimanded, which is exactly what’s happening.
Not all characters in fiction have as recognisable a voice as Caulfield, and often their particular brand of speaking will be much subtler. Take, for instance, Holly Golightly’s (from Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s) constant use of ‘dear’ and ‘darling’ when addressing people; or the recognisable but soft Italian lilt that Giovanni has in James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. These dialogue traits are not enough on their own to bring the characters to life. They’re part of a far wider list of devices used by the writer; however, the story as a whole is always far richer because of them.
This article only scratches the surface of the role that dialogue plays in great writing. I would encourage anyone interested to pay particular attention to the dialogue in the fiction you’re currently reading. How realistic are the passages of dialogue to ‘real life’? In what ways do they advance the plot? What type of verbs of attribution are being used? Do the main characters have particular ways of speaking, and if so, how does it help create a more compelling story?
There’s no single story analysed by Fetish Literature that is necessarily stronger than the others when it comes to dialogue. Rather, I’d say they all have something to offer. Whether it’s the condensed, terse exchanges in Hemingway’s ‘Hills like White Elephants’ or the use of vernacular in Bobbie Ann-Mason’s ‘Shiloh’. I encourage you to have a look for yourself by browsing through the articles section of our website, which you can find by clicking here.