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Writing Dialogue by Hannah McNiven

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

Hannah McNiven

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On YouTube, there is an excellent Intelligence Squared discussion entitled ‘Jane vs. Brontë: The Queens of English Literature Debate.’ During the debate, John Mullan, professor of English Literature at University College London, expresses the belief that, “Austen was – I think – the greatest writer of dialogue in the history of English fiction.” Watching the rest of the debate in which actors perform extracts from Austen’s novels you see that Mullan makes a fair point. When read aloud, conversations between her characters are so visceral, you could be sitting in a carriage beside Emma Woodhouse or listening to Mrs Bennett prattle to Mr Bennett in his study. Though written more than two hundred years ago, the voices Austen created speak with such ease and clarity of thought that, as a reader, you don’t notice the fact that you are reading dialogue. It’s more like eavesdropping on the conversation that just happens to strike up in your vicinity.

The beauty of good dialogue comes from its seamlessness. When the quotation marks open, the speech inside them should never jar a reader out of the story. It can frustrate a reader when dialogue does not ring true. When a person suddenly says something out of character or off-rhythm you come juddering to a halt. This happens to me especially when reading modern characters that don’t use contractions like ‘could not’ instead of ‘couldn’t.’

Of course, if your characters inhabit Regency England as Austen’s do, then you absolutely ‘should not’ use contractions. Dialogue, much like the dress or manners of characters, must fit the period inhabit. When writing historical fiction, this can be somewhat challenging as there are fewer aural references to help you pick up the nuances of the language used. In this sense, modern language is much easier to write because we speak it and are bombarded daily by a plethora of voices on TV, radio and phones. Yet, when writing believable dialogue, it is important to read it as well as listen to it.

Jane Austen is, as mentioned, a cornerstone when it comes to writing good dialogue. It’s witty, intelligent and, despite its age, quite relatable. However much or little a character says tells you something about them. Their tone, the subjects they discuss, their adjectives; all tell us something about their personality. Whether they are verbose like Mrs Bennett or taciturn like Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility, you come to know more about them and judge them with every utterance. Their level of intelligence, their views on the opposite sex, their thoughts on different classes. Attitudes expressed verbally can be so much more concrete than paragraphs of description. With the utterance of a single sentence a reader can form their entire opinion of a character – positive or negative. Think of Mr Darcy. Elizabeth is ‘tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me.’ This single overheard sentence tells a reader a lot about his character and exhibits how important every line of dialogue is in a novel.

There are, of course, many other authors who have a gift for dialogue. The writing of Evelyn Waugh creates such vivid characters through utterances. Another benefit of reading his work is that he wrote his novels during the time period within which some of my own work is set. The phraseology and rhythm of his dialogue roots it firmly in the early half of the twentieth century much as the discourse in Charles Dickens’ novels place characters in the middle of Victorian England.

Dickens is also interesting in that his characters come from various classes. Their speech is key to understanding their education, class and where they come from. Often, Dickens’ dialogue is written phonetically which leaves the reader in no doubt about the accent with which characters speak. This adds yet another layer of colour to people already suffuse with memorable personalities.

There is no disputing that Dickens’ characterizations were often born from the author’s own encounters with real people. However, Dickens was also an avid theatregoer. It stands to reason that this passion influenced his writing. I, therefore, think that when writing about a particular era – and especially when writing speech – it is worth finding reference points in plays form that time period. However, I may be bias in this assumption. In university I pursued an education in theatre. Yet, I truly believe that this education is beneficial when it comes to writing dialogue. Yes, it’s of paramount importance to read authors who show us what language was used in previous time periods. I also think that quality film and television are extremely useful when gauging the speech patterns and word usage of people who inhabit different worlds – whether it’s the world of Victorian Britain or modern espionage.

Plays have shaped the way I construct a dialogue-heavy scene. I not only visualise but often say the words to myself, just to make sure they ring true. They unfold in my mind’s eye as if I am watching and listening to them onstage. Yet, watching a play might not be the most useful thing when it comes to writing. Reading them is. From J.M. Synge to Brian Friel, playwrights offer excellent plays and brilliant dialogue. Due to the nature of the medium, dialogue is where much of the character-building and exposition takes place. Also, when it comes to punctuation – from ellipses to commas – reading plays is an excellent way to become familiar with their usage; particularly in Tom Murphy’s work.

All that being said, one of the most important things you can do as a writer is listen. Whether that is to a radio presenter, your family dinner table or the man on the bus impatiently explaining to his mother where the fuse box is in the house she has inhabited for forty years (true story!). The more you tune into human speech – written or spoken – the easier it is to write it.

Have a go…but do be careful no one catches you having a conversation with yourself!

(c) Hannah McNiven

About The Loves of Mrs McAllister:

Would you risk losing everything for love?

In 1936, eighteen-year-old Esther Muncie marries Scottish landowner Fraser McAllister, twenty-four years her senior.

By 1946, Esther is the mother of two children, wife to an absent husband and is running the estate of Kirkmore. With her Scottish labourers still helping to rebuild Europe with the British Army, and desperately needing workers, Esther takes delivery of twenty German prisoners of war.

Amongst these ‘enemy aliens’ the residents of Kirkmore find friends. They find craftsmen, farmers, ordinary men and boys.

And Esther McAllister finds a German academic by the name of Michael Petersen.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Hannah is a writer based in the south-east of Ireland.
Hannah grew up on a farm in rural Ireland where she spent her childhood riding horses and chasing or being chased by many other animals (mostly cows). Thanks to her parents and siblings, she became a voracious reader. From reading novels by the Bröntes to Evelyn Waugh to Phillipa Gregory, Sebastian Faulks and Pat Barker (there was plenty of Enid Blyton too), Hannah has developed a love of historical and literary fiction which has influenced her own writing. She has an especial interest in stories that occur around the time of, and during, World War One and Two. She sometimes feels that she was, perhaps, born in the wrong era but then remembers how useful the internet is when it comes to researching her work. She is also proud of her Scottish and Irish heritage, believing that there is nowhere more beautiful on Earth than the verdant hills and rugged countryside of these places which are the perfect setting for her work.

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