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John Jenkins July 10


The July column from the former editor of Writers' Forum

John JenkinsAs a publisher and editor I have been answering queries from writers for something like 20 years and as a result I have recently published a book FAQs and the Answers for Ambitious Writers.


You can do everything with dialogue: let your characters tell the story

By John Jenkins


If you find it difficult, write a one act play. That’s all dialogue.  Strip out the banal. One page equals 1 minute – hence 15 pages for a one act play.

He said…she said…the judge expostulated…the inspector explained…the headmaster thundered…the boy snivelled…

One of the most common problems for some writers is dialogue.  For some reason the element that most established writers handle with an assured touch proves difficult. It is essential that you get it right in a story. A book without dialogue is almost certain to be dull. Not the least of reasons is the one put forward by Alice: “What is the use of a book without conversation?”

The girl had a point. The conversation has got to be convincing.  How do you know when you get it right? Listen to Elmore Leonard: “All the information you need can be given in dialogue.”

Indeed it can and it can also save you from the boring “telling” rather than “showing” the reader what is happening.   I am all for recording your story and playing it back. Does it sound natural? Are you convinced? Is the language used right for the characters involved?

But dialogue in a story is not just a transcription of everyday talk, which is full of ums and ahs, repetition, hesitation, unfinished sentences, gestures which fill in gaps and gradations of inflexion which give entirely different meanings to the same word.

Good dialogue should:

Move the story along

Flesh out character

Define location with dialect
Heighten tension

Create mystery

Inform the reader

Govern the pace of a story

It’s asking a lot but good dialogue can do all this for you if handled properly. Just think of all those wonderful characters you remember from stories you have enjoyed:

Mrs Malaprop… Sam Weller… Henry V… Dirty Harry… the Scarlet Pimpernel… Sherlock Holmes… the Godfather.

Every character is made memorable by the words put into their mouths.

Take care when watching movies for dialogue hints: Avoid the following:

OK! Let’s get outta here.
I’ve never told anybody this before…
Quick. Check the gyroscope/ fuel tanks/ parachutes/ horses/ escape hatch etc.

And that good old standby in any submarine film:  Dive… dive… dive!

You need a good ear to pick up dialogue but on no account should you think of yourself as a super shorthand typist transcribing a perfect note of what you hear.

Imagine a couple looking around a house they intend to buy. A new start to save a marriage on the rocks. They traipse from room to room. The woman, filling in awkward silences, and the man saying nothing until she says she doesn’t like the curtains.

We’re here to buy the fucking house not the furniture.

That one savage phrase tells you much of what you need to know about the characters involved and it introduces the thought that it is going to take more than a move and a fresh neighbourhood to rescue that partnership.

Now take this piece of accurate dialogue:

Morning Bill, said a cheery voice on the telephone.
How goes it?  Off to work?
Yes, Dorothy, just leaving.
Another day on the treadmill. What’s with you?

You can almost feel the yawns coming on.

Contrast it with this:

Hey Jim, wanna see something funny?

I’ve just tipped half a glass of Bacardi into Barbara’s coke. That should liven up the party…
Susan, she’s been on the wagon for a year. This’ll push her backwards. I am going to stop her.
You do, Jim and I tell your wife about you and Julia at the sales conference in Monaco last year.

Now that tells you something about three characters. One is a reformed alcoholic. One is a philanderer and the other is a blackmailer and bitch. Not once have you had to use he said, she said.

That’s one of the tests of dialogue. Keep the attributions to a minimum in your story. It should be clear who is speaking without continual use of he said, she said.

Finally, regional dialects can be a trap. Nothing is worse than trying to read something in Mummerset, cockney, scouse or Glaswegian.  As in cooking, a pinch of spice can go a long way and a handful ruins the dish. Far better to use a regional phrase to do the job.

John Jenkins' June column dealt with charging for news websites.


If you have a question you would like John to answer please email it to:

The latest book from John Jenkins is FAQs and the Answers for Ambitious Writers

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