Sunday, 26 August 2012

Dialogue in the short story: Top Tips from a novelist (2)

 As I embark on my short story collection called Paint I am reflecting on the crossover skills between the long and short writing forms. Today it is the role of dialogue in fiction.

Thinking of the story
 Dialogue has its part to play on both long and short fiction. It presents very common problem for new short story writers and novelists 

Dialogue is hot and hard and challenges the reader not just to imagine, but to hear different voices, It allows us to witness aggression, seduction, passion and anger and the nature of relationships without having to be told that this is happening. What is happening hits you in the face. Look at these writers, What do you witness happening here?

Look at  Why Don’t You Dance? by Raymond Carver 

and observe  his ability to imply risk and jeopardy through what seems like simple dialogue.

…He sat down on the sofa to watch. He lit a cigarette, looked around, flipped the match in the grass.
The girl sat on the bed. She pushed off her shoes and lay back. She thought she could see a star. ‘Come here, Jack. Try this bed. Bring one of those pillows.’ she said.
'How is it? ‘he said.
'Try it' she said.
He looked around. The house was dark. 'I feel funny,' he said.  'Better see if anyone’s home.'
She bounced on the bed. ‘Try it first,' she said...

Or look at Daphne du Maurier’s Don’t Look Now 

where she uses dialogue to set the tone of mystery, threat and personal grief near the beginning of the short story. . 

…‘They’re not old girls at all,’ she said. ‘They’re male twins in drag.’ Her voice broke ominously, the prelude to uncontrolled laughter, and John quickly poured some more Chianti into her glass.
        ‘Pretend to choke,’ he said, ’then they won’t notice. You know what it is – they’re criminals doing the sights of Europe, changing sex at each stage. Twin sisters here in Torcello. Twin brothers tomorrow in Venice, parading arm in arm across the Piazza San Marco. Just a matter of switching roles and wigs.’
         ‘Jewel thieves or murderers?’ asked Laura
          ‘Oh murderers definitely. But why, I ask myself, have they picked on me?’
           The waiter made a diversion by bringing coffee and bearing away the fruit, which gave Laura time to banish hysteria and regain control. …


In my story Sharpening Pencils I use dialogue

to show the uncomfortable contact between a shy girl and her equally shy tutor. I think.

...The girl stood back from the painting and surveyed it. Mrs Forrest came to stand beside her. She said. ‘I do like the way you manage to convey both humanity and abstraction, Miss Wintersgill. You hold onto the intimate relationship while making the meaning universal.’
The girl undid and redid her ponytail, filling the air again with the smell of turpentine. Mrs Forrest contemplated the thought of turpentine infusing the curly tumbling hair. Then she said. ‘I can indeed draw quite well. They told me so at the Slade, many years ago.’
‘You were at the Slade?’ 
Mrs Forrest laughed. ‘So I was. As I say, it was many years ago. I worked alongside people who now are what thy call household names.’
The girl coughed. ‘It must have been hard work there.’
Mrs Forrest noticed the accent for the first time. Somewhere from the West perhaps. She lifted her shoulders and sighed. ‘For the first year all I did, dear, was sharpen pencils, clear workspaces. I did draw at night. That eventually earned me my place. My night drawing earned me a place there.’ She paused. ‘Not that I was very good.’
‘It’s hard to think of you just sharpening pencils, Mrs Forrest.’
Mrs Forrest smiled showing discoloured teeth. ‘Of course I watched what they did and in my little room at night I tried it all out myself.’ She looked around. ‘Just as, perhaps, you do here, Miss Wintersgill, in the dark of night. But then you are so much more original.’ She backed away then, fading out of the room and closing the heavy door behind her with a click. Outside she untied Koppy and let him run through the darkened parkland around the house, barking now and then when he scented prey... 

And in this story, The Little Bee I have tried 

to show the world of a little girl observing the complex and ambiguous world around her. Clearly here I am unable to resist contextualising the dialogue in the larger narrative. But perhaps there is room for that in the wide world of the short story, I hope so.

... Amalie put a hand on my shoulder and I stood up before her. ‘And your Mama was very beautiful, ma p’tite. I knew about that. Hadn’t I been her dresser in the Theatre de Varietés? The sheer beauty of your mama drew great applause.’
My father giggled then. ‘But unfortunately she could never remember a line. Not a single line. The manager who had been intoxicated with her became embarrassed and employed beauties with more brain and better memories. Her friend Josephine was one of these.’
Amalie suddenly scowled at him. ‘But after all when you met her, Monsieur, you fell in love.’
He sighed very deeply. ‘So I did, Amalie. So I did.’ And with this he laid his head on the stout oak table and fell asleep, snoring and snuffling within minutes.
My gaze met Amalie’s and - both embarrassed and amused - we started to laugh. She hugged me tight and I could smell the meat and garlic on her. And my father’s fruity cigarettes. Still laughing, I helped Amalie to trundle the trolley through to the dark back places of the house, where her two nieces, who couldn’t speak French at all, washed the pots and dishes and cleared the kitchen for the following day.

As always you should make your own judgement.

? Why not try these …

Abstract some dialogue 

from an existing short story – separate it on a page – and decide what you are doing here. Can you cut it back to just what is spoken? Can you implant more meaning, enhance the tone, and expose the difference in the way people speak by what they say?

- Take a one line encounter from your story 

and render it into dialogue which gives us more of the different lives of the speakers without telling us facts.

Take an overheard fragment of the conversation of strangers 

and create a whole incident though invented dialogue 

Happy writing!



  1. Short story writers are prone to forgetting about dialogue but they do so at their peril - in this fascinating piece the importance and the power of dialogue are brilliantly exemplified in the chosen extracts.

  2. I couldn't refrain from commenting. Well written!



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