He Said, She Said, or the Perils of Writing Dialogue

Today’s Word Craft column in the Wall Street Journal came at a very opportune time.  I’ve been writing away, a little every day, on my book.  I’ve revised Chapter One a bit and am well into Chapter Two now.  After working out a few structural difficulties (see earlier posts), the overall plot development is going well, even better than I’d hoped.  But clearly descriptive narrative alone would not be enough to carry the flow and weight of the story line.

As a quick recap, my main character and her husband buy an old house in a small Virginia town and discover a mystery involving its past, a mystery that draws in the main character to the point of obsession.

I’ve never written dialogue before, and it’s been one of the more intimidating aspects of trying to craft a work of fiction.  In the first two chapters of my book, there are two main characters: a lawyer from the small Virginia town where the house in question is located, and a man living in the Northeast who has just inherited that house.  (I’ve tentatively named them Marcus Hamilton and Bill Emory, respectively.)

In writing and then re-reading the dialogue, I found myself wondering this week if I’d made the dialogue realistic enough but then also wondered what exactly I meant by “realistic”?  The vocabulary and turns of phrase I’ve given to Marcus Hamilton, for instance, are a bit more stylized and courtly than one might expect to hear nowadays, even in an older gentleman from Virginia.  Bill Emory’s language, by contrast, is more crisp and direct, as befits a technical expert living in Massachusetts.

Is this “realistic”?  After reading my draft again, I’ve decided to keep these two distinct styles, particularly the more old-fashioned language that Marcus uses, because one of the things I want to convey is the very different world view and values between the two men.  The opinions they form of one another and the decisions they subsequently make will depend in large part on those different styles and views.

The Word Craft column was written by Alexander McCall Smith, a Scottish writer born in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) who has authored well over three dozen books, including the “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” series which takes place in Botswana.  His view is that writers should not hold back from writing in a style that is more formal or stylized than one normally hears in everyday speech.  One example he holds up is the dialogue in “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” dialogue he describes as follows:

“Dialogue can be beautifully crafted, ornate and colorful. That is not how most people speak, but it makes for good reading. Look at the sparkling sentences spoken by the characters in John Berendt’s “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” I am sure that the residents of Savannah, Ga., speak colorfully in everyday life, but not quite that colorfully.”

I’ve now pulled that book from our shelves to re-read it in order to see again how Berendt handled dialogue, what his characters’  language says about them, and particularly what devices he used to set the dialogue off  in the text without using “he said/she said” to the point of tedium.  Yes, Smith’s own dialogue in his books is a bit stylized and perhaps old-fashioned in places, but it suits his characters and gives them a sense of time and place and personality.  What more could a writer (or reader) ask?

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1 Comment

Filed under On Writing

One response to “He Said, She Said, or the Perils of Writing Dialogue

  1. I’m writing a YA book with two young characters (19 and 22) and I strive for “realistic” dialogue that shows they’ve grown up in the 21st century, but this contrasts with the more elegant dialogue of some of the older characters. Also, you’re very right: it’s important to not let dialogue get so realistic that it’s boring. Good luck finding your balance, it sounds like you’re on the right track!

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