In a previous post The Short Story – Writing What Editors Want Circa 1926…Part 1 I looked at some writing tips, written 90 years ago by author Michael Joseph in his book Short Story Writing for Profit. It is a book I found in a second hand shop whilst away writing in Suffolk and it is is full of gems of the period, alongside some writing advice that remains true well into the twenty-first century. This is a great time of year to learn from the masters, as this week many will be embarking on the writing marathon that is NaNoWriMo.
I have been particularly interested in the way Josephs discusses dialogue. The examples he gives are somewhat amusing. For example, in order to suggest that a man is weak and ineffectual, he offers:
“Oh rather,” said Algy. “A gel always notices a chap’s clothes what? Ties and socks to match, and all that sort of thing, doncher know. Oh rather!”
Then he, with some nerve, goes on to suggest that dialogue in the stories of Robert Louis Stevenson or Edgar Allan Poe, for example, is ‘curiously artificial’.
But he is right in a way. He considers dialogue to have three main purposes:
- To reveal character
- To convey setting
- To carry on or accelerate the action.
You may know, or have been told, that there are other ways in which dialogue can make, or break, the success of your short story. But these seem to me to be a firm foundation, at least as a starting point. Although Algy is clearly a man of his time, possibly a member of the Bertie Wooster set or a bit part player in a Lord Peter Wimsey mystery, he is, although it is hard to believe, speaking naturally. 90 years later, we shouldn’t write dialogue that is too formal, nor yet too real. There are few of us that speak using perfect grammar all the time, so listen to real dialogue (I do love a coffee shop for this, but we all have our favourite settings for earwigging other people’s conversations) and jot down the ways in which they take their own stories forward. You might even be able to weave a short character sketch around their words (making all sorts of unfair assumptions of course, but they are never going to know…).
However, as Michael Joseph points out:
The dialogue of fiction must appear real and true to life…[but] faithful reproduction of ordinary human speech would appear ridiculous on the printed page…The dialogue of fiction is the result of drastic boiling down of ordinary speech. Only what is significant may remain; all the innumerable irrelevances, repetitions, ejaculations, grammatical errors and meaningless phrases must be pruned away before dialogue can be written down…’
So, he is here warning any author away from the TOO realistic – feeling the need to show how keen you are to write real dialogue, by including every um and ar and well and the stutters that creep into our pattern of speech. Why, when one of the first rules of good short story writing is to ensure that every word counts, would you waste those words on ones that clearly don’t, and which can only slow down the pace and frustrate the reader?
As to setting, well in a restricted word count, it is possible to convey a sense of place within the confines of dialogue. Perhaps, as they are speaking, a character could run his or her fingers along a dusty mantelpiece, or notice that curtains are only partly drawn, to suggest a level of neglect. Josephs uses the example of a mystery story to show how surroundings can be drawn into a sentence that also moves the story along and offers a suggestion of character:
“I like this place…It is so uncanny. Do you know I wouldn’t want to sit here alone, Jem. I should imagine that all sorts of dreadful things were hidden behind the bushes and trees, waiting to spring out on me…”
To continue that acceleration of pace and to ensure that the action that does take place you must feed the imagination a balanced diet, rather than one so rich it becomes lazy and bored. The example given in the book is, I think, a good one.
“Throw a stone down sergeant. I want to judge how deep it is” …
I am seeing a well, down which a police constable might have to climb to retrieve a murder weapon. Or a hole created by a collapsed trench in the First World War perhaps. Any thoughts?
Subtext, suggestion, looks, and thoughts can all be there without direct reference. It is a skill I find very difficult, and thankfully Josephs considers this to be the bane of many writers, and he believes dialogue has to be spontaneous to be successful: ‘…revision is not desirable. If your dialogue does not develop naturally, scrap it and start again…’ I think that rather harsh. If you are revising and revising again, as writers are advised to do, the dialogue might need to change, or mistakes only become obvious for the first time.
However, I am with Michael Josephs when he says the best way a writer can improve their own dialogue is to read the work of the masters of their craft. 90 years ago he was suggesting E.F. Benson, Jack London and A.A Milne. I would suggest the author Elizabeth Taylor, who to my mind, in her wonderful short stories and full length novels seems to have mastered the perfect example of saying much by saying little.
Josephs also offers practical tips, such as inventing imaginary conversations between well-known fictional characters (he suggests Kipps and Micawber. Any modern day suggestions?) or taking a short story and re-writing the whole thing in dialogue.
The advice I have taken from this fascinating little book is as relevant today as it was in the early part of the last century. Firstly, to write good dialogue you have to know your character inside out – how he or she thinks or feels in given situations, or about specific issues will go along way towards suggesting the way in which they would express themselves in speech.
Secondly I must learn to put myself into the place of all my characters, becoming each of them in turn. That is something I will find especially difficult and even more so when I know that to be really successful a character has to have light and shade; isn’t wholly good or wholly bad perhaps.
Many of the suggestions Michael Josephs makes are very daunting and take me back to school homework and complicated writing exercises set by some creative writing tutors. But I am not one of those lucky people to whom (apparently) writing good, natural dialogue comes naturally, so there is no point groaning and procrastinating, I just have to get on with it.
Clearly this writing business takes a lot of real WORK…
What are your best tips for good dialogue?