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As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, I read unsolicited manuscripts for short stories. Some are good and don’t need as much as a tweak but the vast majority are from beginner writers. They are often straight out of a writing course and anxious to get started on that hard and often unrewarding road. Then there are writers that think that if they lift a chapter out of their novel and pretend it’s a short story, you won’t notice.

The problem that beginners often have in common is dialogue. Most are afraid of it. If they could manage to leave it out altogether they would, in fact some do. Then there is the writer of stilted and unrealistic dialogue that does nothing to forward the story or promote interest in the character. Often the speech of a middle aged professional will have the mindset of a nineteen year old which says more about the young writer than about the middle-aged professional.

I’m sure their lecturers told them to read as widely as possible and analyse how it’s done or revisit old favourites and look at the dialogue from a writer’s perspective but in their anxiety to begin on that great idea that they have they ignore that advice.

A short story from:  ‘The Illustrated Man,’ The Last Night of the World by Ray Bradbury

‘What would you do if you knew this was the last night of the world?’

‘What would I do? You mean seriously?

‘Yes, seriously.’

‘I don’t know. I hadn’t thought.’

He poured some coffee. In the background the two girls were playing blocks on the parlour rug in the light of the green hurricane lamps. There was an easy, clean aroma of the brewed coffee in the evening air.

‘Well, better start thinking about it,’ he said

‘You don’t mean it!

He nodded.

‘A war?’

He shook his head.

‘Not the hydrogen or atom bomb?’

‘No.’

‘Or germ warfare?

‘None of those at all he said, stirring his coffee slowly. ‘But just let’s say, the closing of a book.’

That’s the beginning of the story. It sent chills up my spine when I first read it, it still does. My friends and I used to scare each other about the end of the world. Back then there was ‘The Bomb’ to worry about. But there’s an immediacy about this beginning that makes it new and believable. The dialogue moves the reader straight into Bradbury’s world. Those first few lines that begin with dialogue set the pace and the tone. Notice too how you can separate the two characters without the he said / she said you come to expect in dialogue and we don’t know their names and won’t know their names all the way through the story. Because there’s a little bit of prose to break up the dialogue you get to know that the main character who brought up the question is a man, it is at his home and he has two young daughters who ‘were playing blocks.’

Venus in Copper by Lindsey Davis

Dialogue with subtext. In real life most of us don’t always say what we mean.  If I ask you how you are, I am not necessarily wanting to know. Or answer what we mean: We usually say we are okay even if we’re not. When I ask my husband to put on the kettle, he knows I mean that he should make me a cup of coffee, milk but not sugar. That’s a sort of subtext.

‘Where were you?’ I demanded more hotly than I meant.

She looked startled, ‘Bathing…’

She was clean all right. She looked delicious. Her hair shone; her skin was soft and perfumed all over sith some distinctive flowery oil that made me want to move very much closer to investigate…

I was working up a froth again. I knew she could tell, and I knew she would laugh, so I retreated to banter. ‘I just encountered a fortune-teller who promised I was doomed in love. So naturally I dashed straight here –‘

‘For a dose of doom?’

‘Are you coming in to make me a laugh, or is this just a tantalising glimpse to make me pine for you?’

Since the porter had opened the door for her, I was already inside.

‘Do you?’ I asked nonchalantly.

‘What?’

‘Pine for me?’

Helena Justina gave me an unfathomable smile.

Venus in Copper is a detective story. The central character and narrator is Falco and his girl, a senator’s daughter is Helena. The story is set in Ancient Rome. Falco and Helena are lovers but can’t afford to marry since Falco is a Plebe and needs to earn a huge amount of money to reach the status that will allow him to marry Helena. Their banter shows they love each other and are comfortable in their relationship.  By the time the reader gets to this section he or she will also know that Helena was pregnant and lost the baby. Davis needn’t spell it out for the reader. She might give a few references to show us we are in ancient Rome but doesn’t belabour the point and unlike some stories set in ancient Rome I find the names easy to remember.

There are any amount of ways to push your plot forward and develop your characters through dialogue. I’m sure you’ve got your own favourite reads, go find out for yourself how it’s done. . (I’d love to know how you go.)

6 thoughts on “Dialogue

  1. This is fascinating, Mary. I’m not sure what “read unsolicited manuscripts for short stories” means – does it mean that you read short stories that have been submitted voluntarily and decide whether they can be published? In a magazine or perhaps an anthology? That would be a fascinating job, but I can just imagine that you would have to wade through a lot of excruciating stuff.

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