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Editor's advice 1 - Dialogue



Maureen Kincaid SpellerMaureen Kincaid Speller a reviewer, writer, editor and former librarian, is our book reviewer and also works for WritersServices as a freelance editor. is a long-serving WritersServices freelance editor. This series, based on the advice she has given writers over the years, deals with the most common problems she has encountered in the manuscripts which cross her desk.

In the first article Maureen writes about Dialogue

A Word In Edgeways: Letting Your Characters Have Their Say …

Picture the scene; I have just settled down to read a manuscript. Character A has come to visit Character B about an important matter. Character B is a friendly soul and offers A a cup of tea. Milk? Yes, please. Sugar? Just a small spoonful, thanks. Or would A prefer a cup of coffee, it wouldn’t take a moment. Biscuit? Oh, go on then. Digestive or Rich Tea? A and B witter aimlessly for several pages about beverages and baked goods, while the fate of world peace hangs on B giving A a vital clue. Which clearly isn’t going to happen for another four or five pages.

If you’re thinking ‘oh my god, that’s me’, yes it was you, but don’t worry, you weren’t the only one. It’s one of the four or five most common faults in the novels I read. Most writers struggle to produce convincing dialogue, because they confuse it with conversation. I frequently read manuscripts of novels with pages of unnecessary chit-chat. I know you do it for the best of reasons. You want your characters to sound real. Daily life is filled with conversation so your characters must have conversations too.

A recent study taped and then transcribed everything that a group of people said during a day. Quite apart from showing how rarely people actually complete a sentence, the study showed how staggeringly banal most ‘real’ conversations are. Conversation functioned less as a means of conveying information, more as social glue.

In fact, there are very few instances where real-life people engage in intense exchanges of information – a business meeting, perhaps, or a university seminar, neither of them the stuff of scintillating fiction. Mostly, when we talk, the conversation is a blurred mixture of important information and social filler.

Fictional characters lead very different lives to their real-life counterparts, and their speech reflects this. Every word spoken by a character has to pull its weight in some way, either to indicate character or to convey information, ideally both. If B offers a drink to A, there has to be a reason why, even if it is that B is a friendly soul who likes a chat. We don’t need the chat as well. If A accepts, it has to be for a reason. A brusque refusal also indicates something.

In other words, dialogue becomes a form of shorthand for conversation rather than being a faithful representation of it. If two characters have a long aimless conversation over a tea table because the plot demands this, then the dialogue must be very carefully nuanced to ensure that the reader is still gathering information through the aimlessness.

You might be saying ‘my book on how to be a writer told me I should listen to other people’s conversations’, and yes, you should – it’s important to understand how people speak – but you need to listen with an editorial ear, and be thinking about how to get the essence of that conversation onto the page in a few brief exchanges. Having written it, you might want to read that dialogue aloud and ask yourself whether it’s really necessary to the plot.

While pages of inconsequential chit-chat may make my heart sink, my blood is chilled when I come across something like this: ‘B asked A if he would like a cup of tea. A said that he would. B asked if he would like milk and sugar, and A said that he would like milk and a small spoonful of sugar. B said there was coffee too if he’d prefer that. B also offered A a biscuit, asking if he would prefer a digestive or a Rich Tea.’

Isn’t it boring? It’s called reported speech, and should be used sparingly, when people want to summarise something they may have overheard, or to recapitulate an earlier conversation. I have seen entire novels written in this fashion, but it was very difficult to maintain interest in them. Quite simply, don’t do it.

Read novels, look at how other novelists handle conversation. No matter how much of a struggle it might be, persevere with direct speech. Apart from that, remember that less is frequently more, and that one well-crafted line of dialogue can say far more than screeds of chit-chat.

An Editor's Advice 1 on Dialogue
An Editor's Advice 2 on doing further drafts
An Editor's Advice 3 on genre writing
An Editor's Advice 4 on planning
An Editor's Advice 5 on points of view
An Editor's Advice 6 on autobiography and travel
An Editor's Advice 7 on manuscript presentation

See also Maureen's many reviews of writing books in our Resources section.

Maureen Kincaid Speller is a reviewer, writer, editor and former librarian.