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Dialogue, Please!

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

Pauline Lawless

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I came to writing very late in life. Aged 63, newly retired, I had time on my hands and as an avid reader I decided to try my hand at writing myself. No doubt you’ve all often taken up a pretty awful book and thought ‘I could do better than this. If they managed to get published maybe I could too’. That’s how I felt so for weeks I mulled it over in my head – mainly at night, while lying awake. Beats thinking about your problems and perhaps your bank balance (as John Banville said recently onIrelandAM)

Well, finally the scene was set – a slimming club in Co. Kildare – my characters defined, and I was up and running. I found it amazingly easy. Once I knew my characters well they just took off on their own in directions I could never have imagined. It was exhilarating. ‘Because We’re Worth It’ was born.

To my surprise Paula Campbell of Poolbeg liked my story but said it needed a lot of work. I agreed to do that which surprised them (seemingly a lot of authors refuse to change anything). I had no such ego and was just delighted that I would be published.

Paula wasn’t joking. It needed a mountain of work! The big mistake I’d made was that I’d just told a story – straight up – and that doesn’t work. When I got my ms back from my editor, Gaye, it was littered with red and blue marks. And the majority of them said “Dialogue, please!” I realised that I had made a major error and as soon as I changed the straightforward telling with dialogue – the book came alive. There were also a few “How did she sound when she was talking? What tone of voice? What actions?” It was the best advice I could have received and once I followed her advice my book became so much better. Good editors are like goldust!

Obviously, I’ve learnt a lot since then and in my subsequent book ‘If The Shoes Fit’ I made sure to include plenty of dialogue and low and behold, when I got the ms back from Gaye there were much less red and blue marks. I’d learnt my lesson well!

Along the way I came to realise that dialogue was what defined my characters more than anything else. The way they talk speaks volumes. One word from their mouths is worth a hundred from me. When I started mulling over my latest book ‘A Year Like No Other’ I found myself talking to myself just like my characters would talk. This helps me get inside their heads which is what writing is all about really.

To illustrate this I will talk about some of my characters in ‘A Year Like No Other’:

Felicity opens the story. Her husband Max has just told her that they have to move toParis for a year.

“Paris? You can’t be serious! Please tell me you’re joking, Maxwell.” Her voice wobbled as her eyes searched her husband’s. “Oh God, not Paris” she continued, her plummy, well-modulated voice rising uncharacteristically. ‘You know I detest France. Nobody speaks English there and the French are so rude. Do we have to go?”

She then goes on ‘How can I possibly face my friends? They’re all madly jealous at the prospect of my moving to Dubai or Hong Kong and now I have to tell them that I’m just popping across the Channel,” she sniffed.

I hope that from what she says, one can see that she’s an uptight, narrow-minded, snobby English aristo who views the French as aliens. One wonders how she’ll survive inParis.

Ashling from Ireland is a much more likeable character from the off. “Oh my God, I can’t believe it! Paris!”she cried, clapping her hands, her face aglow. “How come? Tell me all!” is her reaction to the news. Her husband opened the champagne to celebrate. Pop!

“My favourite sound,” Ashling sighed happily. “To Paris and my wonderful husband for making it all happen!” she toasted him, smiling.

One can sense instantly, that Ashling is going to have a ball there. One can tell she’s jolly, loving and good fun. It would take so many words to get this message across in straight storytelling.

Taylor from New York was lounging in the bath and frowned in irritation when she heard a tap on the door. “Maria, I told you I did not want to be disturbed,” she snapped at her Mexican housekeeper. “It’s not Maria, it’s me,” said her husband, Brandon. “Oh for heaven’s sake, Brandon, you know better than to disturb me in my bath,” she said irritably. Later, when he broke the news to her that she would have to accompany him to Paris for a year, she enquired, “I can fly back for the sweet charity ball in November?” “Of course,” her husband replied. “Business class?” “But of course,” he sighed, knowing that she damn well wouldn’t travel any other way. “First class?” she asked, pushing her luck. Resigning herself to going she tells him her cold grey eyes glittering “Let me warn you, it will cost you.” “I don’t doubt it,” he replied dryly. He could almost feel his credit card heating up as he spoke!

Tayloris obviously not going to be a bellyful of laughs.

Marilyn, is Taylor’s friend from Texas. Taylor is trying to persuade her to come to Paris. She offers to pay Marilyn’s fare. Marilyn replies;“Oh, honey, you’re soooo generous. I’d love to come. To tell you the truth I need to lie low for a while here. You know that politician I was goin’ out with? Well blow me down if the press darn well didn’t get hold of the story. All friggin hell broke loose so I’m here with the paps parked outside my door, afraid to show my purty little face outside. It’s worse than bein’ Tiger Woods mistress, I’m tellin’ ya!” She pealed with laughter.

Fun and games guaranteed here, you can tell!

I hope this shows how important dialogue is and how it brings your characters alive. I know it’s worked for me. Happy reading and writing!!

About the author

(c) Pauline Lawless July 2011

Pauline has previously featured on writing.ie in Sitting Down to Write in which she discusses her books and her writing process.

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