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Dialogue: how hard can it be? by Vanessa Pearse

Writing.ie | Resources | Better Fiction Guides | Writing Dialogue
Vanessa Pearse

Vanessa Pearse

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Dialogue – a conversation between two or more people, a feature of a book…

How hard can it be to write realistic dialogue? Surely all we have to do is sit in a café and eavesdrop on conversations between people vaguely akin to how we see our characters, note what they say and how they say it and bingo, good dialogue! But, try taking down every word, every broken phrase, every ‘em’, every ‘oh’, every expletive, every pause and every interruption of a short conversation and you will quickly see just how incoherent and tedious the average real conversation appears on paper. Excessive use of expletives or ‘ems’ may be true to your character but put them all down and the dialogue will be as dull as dishwasher and quickly skipped over by readers.

That is not to undervalue the importance of eavesdropping and observing to pick up turns of phrases, expressions and gestures that add authenticity to characters. For example, during months of lockdown spent away from young people, I found it impossible to write dialogue between young adults that didn’t read like middle-aged people trying too hard to sound young and cool. I’d forgotten the sound of young people talking and the way they use phrases like ‘only savage’ or ‘only bangin’ ’ usually to mean something brilliant but occasionally to mean the complete opposite!

In both my first novel, Deniable Memories, and my second, Beneath the Image, I use dialogue to reveal the key characters’ personalities and stories. But, in the initial drafts of both, I was inclined to put the bones of the backstories down as part of the narrative. In doing the first edits, I could see these parts read like boring dumps of information that needed to be revealed through conversations which would be more intriguing to the reader and provide more scope to get across essential tension and emotion. In real life, we seldom get to give uninterrupted speeches, verbal and nonverbal responses are part of the conversation, so I try to keep speeches reasonably short, breaking them up with characters’ reactions and interruptions, interspersed with narrative that helps set the scene and the mood. This extract from Beneath the Image illustrates this:

­­‘ “He rarely slapped them. I could usually keep him away from them when he was in the mood for it. They learned to go up to bed and stay quiet. Ach, they had left home before the slaps became full punches… I was able to say I fell or something, you know if the injuries showed… I know they saw more than was good for them. They were still at home when he shoved me down the stairs and I fractured two ribs… I said I fell…He told anyone who listened, including them, that I’d been drinking. He was the one who was drinking but he was forever tellin’ people I was the drinker!”

I watched her twist the hair at the front of her ear around her finger and then take it between her thumb and forefinger and pull it. Four or more strands came out at a time. I could feel each pull. I could see the skin straining from the side of her head and the individual hairs pop out one by one. If she kept going, she was going to have no hair there soon.

“Surely social services… somebody did something then?” I was getting more shocked and unsettled as she spoke. I kept waiting for her to tell me about how someone put a stop to it… people must have known…

“Not at all. Clumsy me. It was I who banged into things. I was that cliché. I was the woman who walked into doors. He liked to laughingly call me the three Cs: Clumsy Celine, the Cunt.”

A shiver ran through my body listening to those words. I looked at her and I understood why she had walked as she had. Just as a hedgehog rolls itself into a ball to protect itself, she curled into the foetal position to protect herself. I am often amazed how often I wake up from a bad dream and I am curled in a ball. But we are not hedgehogs, we have no prickles to ward off threats to our bodies.’

In the entire of this piece of dialogue between Martha and Celine, I did not need to use ‘said Martha’ or ‘said Celine’ as the nature of the conversation and the reactions, together with the occasional use of a character’s name by the other character, make it clear as to which character is talking. In writing dialogue, I generally stick to the literary rule of using simple verbs such as ‘said’, ‘answered’, ‘asked’, rather than more elaborate verbs such as ‘yelled’, ‘murmured’ or ‘whispered,’ as these tend to spoil the flow. In keeping with another accepted literary rule told to me in every writing course where dialogue was discussed, I also usually avoid adverbs as the idea is that the dialogue will speak for itself in so far as it wishes to express anger, sadness or other emotion. It was therefore with a certain amusement that I observed two instances in the opening pages of her latest, much acclaimed novel, Beautiful World, Where are You, Sally Rooney gets around this rule by using the phrases, ‘In a gentle tone..’ and ‘In a flat tone…’, – in writing, rules are there to be broken, and the best of writers have particular licence!

Dialogue does not ring true if everything is expressly stated between inverted commas (actual or implied as many authors such as Sally Rooney do not use quotation marks). Much  is deliberately left unsaid but is implied. In the extract above, Celine recounts what happened to her using language that is unemotive relative to the horror of what she is relaying; it is the painful way she pulls out her hair as she speaks that expresses her true trauma. In some conversations, little is verbally expressed but much is said. It’s in the shrug of the shoulder, the raising of an eyebrow, the silences… Roddy Doyle, the supreme master of dialogue, illustrates this brilliantly in all that is left unsaid in his recent novel, Love:

—She was never slim, I said.

He shrugged.

—I don’t even know what slim means, really, he said.

He smiled.

—Same here, I said. —I just said it, he said. —The word. She was a tall shape – instead.


—Not a roundy shape.

—She’s aged well, I said. —That’s what you’re telling me.

—I am, he said. —And she has.

To know if dialogue is saying ‘it best’, hitting the right emotional note, reading true to character, flowing naturally in a way that keeps the reader interested, I read it out loud – if it doesn’t sound right, it’s not right!

(c) Vanessa Pearse

About Beneath the Image:

Twenty-five years ago, Martha was on a life-changing trip to Sudan, finally living life her way after years of torment from her so-called family. Now, she’s preparing to host a dinner party to break up her marriage. It’s not the life she had envisioned for herself, but she is determined her husband’s affair is not going to make her a victim again.

For years, abuse has been lurking just behind Celine’s front door. Hidden from the world. After a near-death assault she manages to force her husband out of their house. She should have been safe.

Despite being neighbours neither knew what the other was concealing. But both knew the fear of the next unavoidable beating; both had felt its shame and the desire to cover it up, pretend it never happened.

Now it’s time for the masks to come off, to reveal what truly lies beneath.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

After thirty years as a reluctant accountant, Vanessa retired from figures to focus on writing and over the last seven years has taken part in writing workshops at Bantry Literary Festivals, The Irish Writers Centre and The Big Smoke Writing Factory.
When not escaping to West Cork or further afield, the author lies in Clontarf, with her husband, three of their four children – one has flown the nest – her black dog Yoda and her black, epileptic cat named Cat.

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