Novel Writing Techniques – Dialogue

Once again the writer is performing a sleight of hand in their contract with the reader. Dialogue has to sound real while at the same time not being a facsimile of how people  speak in reality. And if you’ve ever transcribed a recorded conversation, you’ll understand why; there are far too many ‘um’s, ‘you know’s (plus similar phrases) and digressions for it to work on the page.

However, writers can learn a lot by listening in to conversations (on the bus/train, in the café) and noting down interesting or engaging turns of phrase. This is especially true if we are trying to capture a particular regional dialect or way of speaking. In addition, we may want to talk to or interview people with particular experiences or knowledge in order to be able to bring in specialist language to add authenticity to a character’s speech. One criticism of my first novel (written thirty-two years ago and never published) was that everyone sounded like me. I have strived to ensure this can no longer be levelled against my writing, against my fiction and poetry at least.

I have recently discovered that indirect or summarised speech has been given a bad name by certain creative writing tutors. It is direct speech which has impact, students are told. This is true. However, it also loses its impact if there are pages and pages of it. One way for it to maintain its wow factor is to balance it with summarised speech, leaving the quote marks for that crucial line. Here Margaret Geraghty (The Novelist’s Guide) is once again instructive. Summarise the discussion about the greenfly on the roses and then, bang, add in direct speech, ‘Honey, I’m leaving you.’ Readers will happily forego the advice on gardening, for the pleasure of being brought swiftly and skilfully to the denouement.

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