Let's Talk About Dialogue
Easy to do, hard to do well.
Dialogue – at least bad dialogue - is easy to do, and a lot of writers fill their first draft with dialogue just to stuff some pages full of words.
But it is very hard to do well. And it is one of the very hardest things to teach because it is so subtle. It is like teaching music. But the only instrument is your ear – and your laptop.
‘ Each phrase of each sentence, like an air or a recitative in music, should be so artfully compounded out of long and short, out of accented and unaccented, as to gratify the sensual ear. And of this the ear is the sole judge. It is impossible to lay down rules’. John Gardner.
So far, so unhelpful.
I recently went to see a play by one of the masters of dialogue, David Mamet.
And at the end of it, I thought to myself ‘I couldn’t write dialogue as good as that in a million years’
Why was it so good? Because it was all subtext. What was said was not what was being said. What was unsaid rang louder than any words. Gaps and silences counted for far more than content.
Writing a novel is different from writing a play. Obviously, a play relies more or less entirely on dialogue. This is why the best dialogue writers tend to be dramatists or screenwriters. For novelists, it is one tool in a whole toolbox. But that’s not to say it isn’t important.