Writing advice blog: Dialogue – learning from the best

Susie Helme and Elaine Graham-Leigh

Photo by Daniel Lonn on Unsplash

Last week, we looked at some tips for how to write great dialogue. Now we’ll see how they can be put into practice with some examples from literature from 1813 to 2020. Literary style and conventions change over time, but the need for great dialogue remains the same.

Pride and Prejudice, (1813) Jane Austen

“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”

Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.

“But it is,” returned she; “for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.”

Mr. Bennet made no answer.

“Do you not want to know who has taken it?” cried his wife impatiently.

“You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.”

This was invitation enough.

“Why, my dear, you must know, Mrs. Long says…”

The cleverest aspect of this dialogue is how the characters come across, without having to explicitly say, ‘Mrs Bennet is an empty-headed chatterbox’ or ‘Mr Bennet is a detached old curmudgeon’. We are shown so much about their relationship. Mr Bennet hasn’t the energy to stand up for himself and justhas no objectionto letting his wife rule the roost. She on the other hand, has her own ideas about what’s important, and is determined to foist them upon her husband (you must know) whether he likes it or not. They are further differentiated by catchphrases and behaviours. She says my dear often, and he often says nothing at all. The tension between the two of them is so subdued. He isn’t even bothered enough by her chattering to say, ‘Will you shut up?’, buthas no objectionto her wittering on.

I like the way the style is varied. Sometimes, it’s direct quotes said his lady; sometimes it’s reversed returned she; sometimes the quote is just given directly, without saying she said; sometimes other verbs are used other than said returned, cried; sometimes it’s indirect quotesreplied that he had not;sometimes it’s a sentence made no answer.

Pied Piper, (1942) Nevil Shute

A German soldier is buying some clothes in a shop in occupied France, summer 1940.

‘You will be paid later,’ he said, in difficult French. He gathered up the garments.

She protested. ‘I cannot let you take away the clothes unless I have the money. My husband – he would be very much annoyed. He would be furious. Truly, monsieur – that is not possible at all.’

The German said stolidly: ‘It is good. You will be paid. That is a good requisition.’

She said angrily: ‘It is not good at all, that. It is necessary that you should pay with money.’

The man said: ‘That is money, good German money. If you do not believe it, I will call the Military Police. As for your husband, he had better take our German money and be thankful. Perhaps he is a Jew? We have a way with Jews.’

The woman stared at him, dumb.

This shows how you can convey threat and drama in just a few, undramatic words. The way the conversation moves from the shopkeeper being sure of her rights to the realisation that the occupation has changed all the rules is subtle but very effective. Notice also how Shute has the speech of the soldier and the French shopkeeper match the syntax of their languages: the fluent French of the shopkeeper (ce n’est pas bien, ça) and the short, simple sentences of the German with limited French.

The Fall of the Sparrow, (1955) Nigel Balchin

I said, ‘What house are you coming to?’

‘Mr Gladstone’s.’

‘That’s my house.’

I know. The head said so.’

I said, ‘He’s never called “the head” at Amblehurst. Either “the headmaster” or “the gaffer”.’

‘Thank you,’ said Jason with his old polite submissiveness.

I was not really sure what I felt about Jason coming to Gladstone’s. I liked him well enough, but I did not particularly want the job or a wet-nurse to a new kid of thirteen.

I said, ‘Of course you realise that we shan’t see much of each other. I shall probably be in the Upper Fifth next term. Know what form they’ll start you in?’

‘The Upper Fourth, I think.’

‘Not at thirteen, my dear man.’

Jason said, ‘I thought that was what he said, but I’m sure you’re right.’

This isn’t the first time we’ve encountered these two characters, but this short conversation reminds us of their respective statuses – the narrator keen to establish his superiority as the older one, and Jason with his willingness to go along with it in a way we’ll come to see isn’t entirely good for him. Note that Balchin doesn’t use any synonyms for ‘said’ but nevertheless manages to make the dialogue expressive and atmospheric. You can practically feel the condescension dripping from ‘my dear man.’

King Hereafter, (1982) Dorothy Dunnett

Thorfinn said, ‘Now I shall say it again. Your dice are doctored.’

‘I find this tedious,’ King Harald said. ‘And the sight of you is not as amusing as I thought it would be. You won the second game with dice of your own choosing, and I did not complain. Either you finish this match or you cede Orkney to me in any case. Choose.’

‘Why trouble to finish the match?’ Thorfinn said. ‘Prove to me that your dice are fair, and you can have Orkney now.’

There was an axe hung on the wall. King Harald looked at it.

Orm, who had married Finn Arnason’s other daughter, said, ‘My lord King. What my brother offers is just. Moreover, there are men in Caithness and Alba who might seek vengeance for such a deed.’

Harald took down the axe.

Thorfinn said, ‘My dice are on the floor, in my belt-purse. If Thorir will lift them to the board, I shall offer them to test as well.’

Harald turned, the axe in both hands, and Thorfinn rose and stood before him.

Thorfinn said, ‘For mine were loaded as well; and he might as well have the testing of both of them.’

I’ve shortened this passage slightly otherwise it would have been too long to type out, but I don’t think I’ve spoilt the rhythm. It’s the way that Dunnett intersperses Harald’s movements with the lines of dialogue that’s so effective here. You can feel the unease of his councillors as he gets the axe down, while Thorfinn seems unruffled. Each sentence is timed perfectly to deliver Thorfinn’s punchline, almost as if Thorfinn had choreographed not just the dice game but also the way it is reported by the author. Thorfinn is omni-competent, so that’s entirely possible.

The Telling, (2001) Ursula le Guin

Sutty is an ambassador on an alien planet, where the old system of belief has been recently suppressed by the corporation state. By travelling to a remote town, she’s found a place where traces of the old religion still seem to survive. She’s currently in an old shop, looking for hand cream.

‘It will make the bark quite smooth,’ he said softly.

‘The bark,’ Sutty repeated.

He smiled and, setting down the spoon, smoothed one hand over the back of the other.

‘The body is like a tree?’

‘Ah,’ he said, the way Akidan had said, ‘Ah’. It was a sound of assent, but qualified. It was yes but not quite yes. Or yes but we don’t use that word. Or yes but we don’t need to talk about that. Yes with a loophole.

‘In the dark cloud descending out of the sky… the forked… the twice-forked…?’ Sutty said, trying to read a faded but magnificently written inscription high on the wall.

The proprietor slapped one hand loudly on the counter and the other over his mouth.

Sutty jumped.

They stared at each other. The old man lowered his hand. He seemed undisturbed, despite his startling reaction. He was perhaps smiling. ‘Not aloud, yoz’ he murmured.

This is an interesting passage because it breaks the rules – Le Guin uses synonyms for ‘said’, she uses adverbs – but it works. The longer words and adjectives and adverbs give the passage a languorous feel at the beginning, making us feel that we’re back in the days before the corporation state and industrialisation. The proprietor’s silencing of Sutty reading the banned inscriptions doesn’t just break the rhythm of the passage, it reminds us of the sudden breaking of these people’s culture. We’re no longer onlookers, but feeling what they must have felt.

As Meat Loves Salt, (2003) Maria McCann

Jacob has been telling Ferris how the servant found him on his knees in prayer.

(Jacob:) ‘Now I have to do right.’

‘Make restitution.’

‘Aye.’

‘Stay here.’ He rose and went to the bookcase, whence he pulled out a little blue and green volume.

‘What’s that? A book of visions?’

Ferris shook his head. ‘Sermons. Look here,’ and he ruffled the pages with his finger. ‘Here.’

The ‘action beats’ of He rose…gives physicality to the scene andslows the pace. This shows us that Ferris very quickly came to the idea of showing Jacob this book, yet while he’s going to get it, Jacob is sitting there wondering what he’s doing. Likewise, and he ruffled…shows us that he is waiting, excitedly, while Jacob moves over close enough to see the page. The repetition of ‘Here.’ gives the impression that Ferris is excited by what he’s trying to show Jacob and perhaps Jacob is slow to look because he is reluctant.

As Meat Loves Salt, (2003) Maria McCann

Ferris is showing Jacob a revolutionary tract.

‘Have you finished?’ he enquired, moving the candle nearer to me.

‘Yes,’ I lied, seeing that the end of it was nothing but exhortation.

The ‘action beat’moving the candle… gives physicality to the scene andslows the pace. This shows us Ferris’ excitement and hints at Jacob’s reluctance. Jacob admits to himselfI lied, but isn’t willing to reveal to Ferris his negative assessment of the tract.

Indignation, (2008) Philip Roth

Marcus runs into Olivia at the bookstore. She has recently given him a blow job, and he has been avoiding her.

‘Hello, Marc,’ she said.

‘Oh, Yes, hi,’ I said.

‘I did that because I liked you so much.’

‘Pardon?’

She pulled off her hat and shook out her hair, thick and long and not cut too short, with a little crimp of curls over the forehead.

Unlike previous examples, where the pleasantries of meeting—hello, nice to meet you, etc—are skipped over for the sake of jumping straight in to the emotional meat of the story, here the emotional meat is in the pleasantries. The two are approaching their meeting up from very different angles. Olivia unashamedly jumps straight in with a greeting, and Marcus’ discomfort is reflected in his stammering response Oh, Yes, hi.Their previous encounter is referred to as that—there’s no need to name it. Marcus knows very well what she’s referring to; it’s at the top of his mind. Referring to it obliquely underlines how much Marcus was shocked by it. He saysPardon? not because he hasn’t heard her, but because he’s so flummoxed by the situation, he hasn’t figured out how to react. The action beats She pulled off etcpause the narrative long enough to let us imagine how Marcus is feeling. He’s flabbergasted by her, and doesn’t know what to say to her, and yet, he’s looking.

All the sentences of dialogue are short and fast-paced, and it’s only when we get to the slowing down of the description that sentences lengthen.

The Power, (2016) Naomi Alderman

In this novel, girls have developed the power to generate electricity, and this girl has just used her finger to light her cigarette.

Kyle gestures with his chin and says, “Heard a bunch of guys killed a girl in Nebraska last week for doing that.”

“For smoking? Harsh.”

Hunter says, “Half the kids in school know you can do it.”

“So what?”

Hunter says, “Your dad could use you in his factory. Save money on electricity.”

“He’s not my dad.”

The small talk that probably preceded this (Hi, Hunter, what are you doing here? Have you got a cigarette? Sure, here you go. Have you got a light? No need, I have my finger, see? etc) is skipped, and we jump straight in to the emotional meat of the scene. The shocking action—a girl generating fire from her fingertip—is referred to as that. This rather accentuates the shockingness of it. The ‘action beat’gestures with his chinshows a, perhaps feigned, casualness, and yet there’s a subtle threat. She defends herself from the threat by deflecting. She knows full well that the Nebraskan girl was killed for using her powers not for smoking. Her sarcasm here is continued withSo what.She’s got a superpower; she’s not going to let this mere mortal boy threaten her. Hunter’s comment about her dad is a stylish form of exposition. We get that her dad owns a factory, yet the point of the quote is Hunter is jibing her. She responds by deflectingHe’s not my dad.Because she doesn’t want to entertain discussion about her dad’s factory, she changes the subject.

The Mirror and the Light, (2020) Hilary Mantel

Thomas Cromwell and Richmond (Henry Fitzroy) are discussing the succession.

(Richmond:) ‘No man will dictate my actions when I am king, nor cozen me in the way my father is cozened. I will not have women lead me.’

He (Cromwell) inclines his head. ‘My lord, I cannot remake the succession. The new arrangement reflects the king’s will. I do not see what I can do for you.’

‘You will find a way. Every man says you are master of the Parliament. When I am king I shall reward you.’

When you are king? ‘I shall hardly live so long.’

‘I think you will,’ Richmond says. ‘My father’s leg is sore, since he took his fall in January. I am advised an old wound has reopened and there is a channel in his flesh that lies open to the bone.’

‘If that is true then he bears the pain with great fortitude.’

‘If that I true, it cannot remain clean. It will putrefy and he will die.’

With every breath he (Richmond) commits treason, and does not hear it.

Mantel’s trilogy is narrated in the third person, and yet the voice is thoroughly Cromwell’s. Mantel uses ‘he said, she said’ very sparingly because we usually know who is speaking from the context. The subject is a difficult one for Cromwell. He is trying to avoid making any promises, or indeed voicing any opinion, so he tries to change the subject and to turn every response into some kind of flattery of the king. The reader hears Cromwell’s internal monologue When you are king?, With every breath…but there is little explicit exposition, and there are no 21st century intrusions into the voice. Without it ever being expressed, we get the impression that Richmond has little respect for his father, and Cromwell has little respect for Richmond. Cromwell’s goal of playing his cards right is evident.

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