Lisa O’Donnell is the author of two novels: Closed Doors, and Commonwealth-Book-Prize-winning The Death of Bees. She is one of the tight-knit team of tutors on our online creative writing courses and has taught many of our published students, including best-selling author Jane Harper. Here she offers her advice on writing convincing dialogue that works for your novel.
When I was younger I watched a lot of Gothic horror films. Hammer movies were my favourites. And weirdly – this was where I first learned the power of great dialogue. Dracula barely spoke in 1970, but that was very effective because when he did, it gave him more physicality and conjured all kinds of terror in me. “Sleep well, Mr. Harker.” Mr. Harker does not sleep well — I didn’t expect him to … And what I learned was that dialogue can convey character, drive narrative and render a lot of description unnecessary.
Consider Jane Eyre’s speech when Mr. Rochester tells her he fancies her:
“I have as much soul as you — and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh: it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal — as we are!”
It’s all you need really. Three gripping sentences of dialogue conveying Jane’s unyielding passion.
1. Try to keep your dialogue short and real, but not too real. Dialogue should mimic speech, not replicate it ad verbatim.
2. Avoid describing a character’s behaviour in the middle of a verbal exchange by saying the character laughed or smiled, or was angry or fearful. Strong dialogue should infer emotion without the need for these sort of explanations to the reader.
3. Think about the age of your character and get the language right for that age (if necessary by doing research). For example, if you’re writing a teenager – think about how they speak. Similarly, think about the way an older person might speak when writing an elderly character.
4. Remember the background of your characters when writing dialogue: where they come from, what their education is etc. Again, think it through, and consider how it would affect the way they talk.
5. Consider the world you’re writing about – and how that world defines your characters’ dialogue.
6. Dialogue should move the narrative along. It should never be stagnant or expositional. A page of uninterrupted dialogue will only expose an author who, in the final hour of their novel, realises there are still plot holes to be filled. It’s always noticeable and it ALWAYS reads badly.
7. Your character can be revealed through the things they say, but character can also be revealed through the things they don’t say. Think about Raymond Carver: he uses dialogue to imply story.
Roddy Doyle talks about dialogue having its own codes and signifiers that tell us about a character’s community and family. He says, “I see people in terms of dialogue and I believe that people are their talk.”
I find inspiration for my dialogue on buses: Buses are a fascinating connection to the world I live in. If I didn’t ride the bus, I’d have missed the tangerine-peeling old couple complaining about not being allowed to smoke on the top deck because of “all them liberal tossers”. And the awkward teenage boy who thinks a girl in year ten is “fit,” but then says she has a tattoo of a cat on her neck which makes her “well-suspect.” Plus the girl who dumped her boyfriend because he was mean to his mum and his “negativity” was bringing her down. Dialogue is a powerful tool when telling stories – make the the best use of it in your novel and it will work hard for you. What’s funny to me is, I didn’t learn that from Charles Dickens or Virginia Woolf in the first instance. I learned it from Christopher Lee in Dracula. And from sitting on buses.
So maybe next time you’re on public transport, take a pen and notepad and transcribe what you hear. You never know, it might inspire a short story, or that novel you keep meaning to write.
Lisa O’Donnell is the tutor on our upcoming 6-month online novel-writing course – you can find out more and apply here. There is also one fully-funded scholarship place available for a talented writer of limited financial means.