This weeks blog is all about dialogue. It is hugely important in a novel because it can serve many, many functions for the storyteller and the reader. For example, it can be used to show us what kind of person a character, how educated they are, words can be used to relay mood, emotion and can also deceive both the other characters and a reader.
‘Talk, whether ugly or beautiful, is an index of character.’ Stephen King, On Writing
Clever use of dialogue not only does this, but is also able to advance the story and unlike a normal conversation, must only be present in a novel if it is essential to the story or for characterisation. Here are some of the best examples that we have found.
The Maze Runner by James Dashner @jamesdashner
In a world of teenage boys, what can be more apt than the dialogue employed by Dashner in this book. I was able to relate to this on so many levels, but the main thing that drew me in was the language – we are automatically transported to a different place/time/reality by the language that Dashner cleverly alters. We understand the meaning of each word but it just feels different and as fantasy readers, that’s exactly what we want.
Put it simply, the dialogue world builds, displays character and immediately ingratiates the boys to the reader. Here’s a short sample.
“Look at that shank.”
“How old is he?”
“Looks like a klunk in a T-shirt.”
“You’re the flunk, shuck-face.”
“Dude, it smells like feet down there!”
“Hope you enjoyed the one-way trip, Greenie.”
“Ain’t no ticket back, bro.”
One by Sarah Crossan @SarahCrossan
Authors like Holly Bourne make teen dialogue look effortless, but anyone who’s written a YA book know just how many memory sticks they’ve chewed trying to get the tone ‘just right’. The ultimate test is believability of course, and although that’s subjective to a degree, the band-width has edges.
I wanted to shine a brief spotlight on Sarah Crossan here for not only is her dialogue always honest, but she manages to weave in a poetic lyricism too. Her Carnegie Medal winner ‘One’ is a perfect example of how precisely chosen words, in carefully chosen places, can emphasise emotional highs and make a story more impactful for the reader. Heartbreaking and powerful, it’s also one of the most beautifully written YA books I’ve read in a long time. Basically, free verse rocks.
Paddy Clarke Haha by Roddy Doyle
For me one of the all-time great masters of Dialogue has to be Roddy Doyle. Whether he’s writing for children or adults, he packs a huge amount of meaning into the minimum amount of words. Each carefully crafted exchange gives us another insight into his characters, and the colourful worlds they occupy. And of course, like all amazing dialogue writers it is often the built-in silences, the spaces in between that tell us so much more. The opening lines of Paddy Clarke Ha, Ha, Ha provide a lovely example.
We were coming down our road. Kevin stopped at a gate and bashed it with his stick. It was Missis Quigley’s gate; she was always looking out the window but she never did anything.
—Quigley Quigley Quigley!
Liam and Aidan turned down their cul-de-sac. We said nothing; they said nothing. Liam and Aidan had a dead mother. Missis O’Connell was her name.
—It’d be brilliant, wouldn’t it? I said.
—Yeah, said Kevin.—Cool.
We were talking about having a dead ma.
Emma by Jane Austen
I have chosen Jane Austen as the true master of character, and their expression through dialogue. She’s witty and clever and insightful, and she chooses the best combinations of people and their foibles to really stir up trouble and show the best and worst in all of them. My favourite example of this is the Box Hill picnic in Emma. In it, Frank Churchill has been doing his best to win Emma over after being grumpy with her the last time they met, and he decides to enlist the help of the other members of the party, telling everyone that Emma would like to know what they are thinking.
Mr Knightley, however, is not amused and cuttingly responds, “Is Miss Woodhouse sure that she would like to hear what we are all thinking of?” Which, in itself, marvellously expresses Mr Knightley’s character, and also dropping a little hint to the reader that Emma’s flirting with Mr Churchill might just irk him for reasons that Emma doesn’t yet suspect, as well as giving Emma the opportunity to show that, not only does she care about his opinion, but she agrees.
But it’s the next moment that really makes me cringe, showing Emma at her worst, as she tries her best to lighten the mood of the party…
“It will not do,” whispered Frank to Emma, “they are most of them affronted. I will attack them with more address. Ladies and gentlemen, I am ordered by Miss Woodhouse to say, that she waves her right of knowing exactly what you may all be thinking of, and only requires something very entertaining from each of you, in a general way. Here are seven of you, besides myself, (who, she is pleased to say, am very entertaining already,) and she only demands from each of you either one thing very clever, be it prose or verse, original or repeated — or two things moderately clever — or three things very dull indeed, and she engages to laugh heartily at them all.”
“Oh! very well,” exclaimed Miss Bates, “then I need not be uneasy. ‘Three things very dull indeed.’ That will just do for me, you know. I shall be sure to say three dull things as soon as ever I open my mouth, shan’t I? (looking round with the most good-humoured dependence on every body’s assent) Do not you all think I shall?”
Emma could not resist. “Ah! ma’am, but there may be a difficulty. Pardon me, but you will be limited as to number — only three at once.”
Miss Bates, deceived by the mock ceremony of her manner, did not immediately catch her meaning; but, when it burst on her, it could not anger, though a slight blush showed that it could pain her.
“Ah! well — to be sure. Yes, I see what she means, (turning to Mr. Knightley,) and I will try to hold my tongue. I must make myself very disagreeable, or she would not have said such a thing to an old friend.”
It’s one of those moments in which you can’t help but understand why Emma says what she does – who hasn’t said the wrong thing in an attempt to be funny at some point in their life? – but poor Miss Bates. And she’s so lovely about it! Which only makes it a hundred times worse!