Imogen Crimp dissects the art of writing dialogue, and how it plays an intrinsic role in the formulation of good writing.
When we tell stories to our friends, we often end up narrating them in dialogue: he said, and then I said, and then he was like, and then I was like… We know instinctively that dialogue is a flexible tool for story-telling: that it can convey narrative, create humour and colour, expose character, and engage our audience through its immediacy.
For me, good writing starts with getting the dialogue right. There’s a simple reason for this: when I try to control my characters, when I stand on the outside and move them around the room like puppets, my writing is invariably flat and dead – and yet it’s a trap that I find so easy to fall into, when I’m trying to make my characters fulfil the demands of my plot. Focusing on the dialogue helps to prevent an artificial approach to scene structuring. If the words I’m giving my characters feel honest and genuine – lines I can hear them saying, that feel right in their voices – then it’s almost impossible to treat them like plot-pawns. You can’t manipulate them from the outside when they’re talking; you have to stand behind them and speak.
If I find myself falling into puppeteering, I go back to the drawing board and rewrite the scene as pure dialogue, as if it were a play. By making myself pay close attention to the words spoken by my characters, I find it easier to identity what feels authentic versus where I’m using dialogue to artificially shape the plot. Once I’ve got the scene told in dialogue I’m happy with, I consider what’s needed additionally in the way of description, action and interior monologue. I see how little I can get away with for the scene to still be clear, how much trust I can place in the reader to infer (and it’s always much more than I think). The fact that, without fail, this dialogue-centred approach fixes so much in my writing – pace, tone, plot, a sense of realism – shows how fundamental speech is to character. If your characters are operating consistently and authentically in the world, then everything else follows.
This dialogue-centred approach creates space for interpretation and inference, which ultimately makes for a richer reading experience. It forces me not only to abandon authorial over-explaining, but also to pay attention to improbable directness from my characters. Another lesson we can take from life: we rarely get straight to the point or express our desires directly. We’re hampered by embarrassment, or fear of rejection, or societal norms, or self-protection, or else we deliberately use subtlety or obliqueness to manipulate. And so realistic dialogue is oblique, something we understand instinctively whenever we try to work out the hidden meaning behind what people have said to us – messages from potential love interests, compliments from friends, feedback at work.
This obliqueness makes dialogue a gift to a writer: there’s so much potential drama in two people talking to one another, so much scope for conflict, misunderstanding, deliberate obliviousness, cruelty in what is withheld, tragedy in what is not said. Consider this exchange between a young married couple from Elizabeth Bowen’s short story ‘The Shadowy Third’:
‘I wonder you never thought of having a sundial before,’ she insisted. ‘Did Anybody ever think of it?’
‘Well, no,’ he said, ‘I don’t think it ever occurred to me.’
‘No, nor anybody.’
She looked up at the house, silhouetted against the evening sky. ‘It’s funny living in such a new house – I never had. I wonder who will come after us.’
‘We’re not likely to move for some time,’ he said sharply.
In the story, it’s understood that the man’s first wife has died, but the couple never discuss her directly. The obliqueness of the dialogue raises multiple questions (Why won’t the woman ask directly about her husband’s previous wife? Is she afraid of him? Is she insecure? And why doesn’t the man pick up on her hints? Is he ignoring them deliberately, or does he simply not understand who she means by ‘anybody’?). It’s a nuanced portrayal of a young couple skirting around a difficult subject, unable to reassure or to understand one another. It manages to be both tragic and utterly true to life.
Unlike Bowen here, in my own novel, A Very Nice Girl, I chose not to use speech marks to denote dialogue. I was writing in the first person, and found that a lack of speech marks created a more informal feeling, which suited the voice of the character. It also gave me a certain grammatical flexibility, as I could combine my character’s inner monologue with her reporting the direct speech of other characters in a way that felt fluid, retaining a sense that we were closely following her perspective; in this, I was influenced by Modernist writers such as Rosamond Lehmann, who use inner monologue to create an intense and claustrophic emotional experience, often playing with grammar and punctuation (see, for example, the following from her 1936 novel The Weather in the Streets: ‘What sort of writing does his hand make, will it be speaking in his voice; saying darling, saying Olivia, darling, will you… Yes, I’ll say… Yes. Anything you say. Yes.’). The technical challenge of writing without speech marks also clarified another important aspect of dialogue: to a large extent, it should be obvious when something is dialogue and who’s speaking it, because it sounds like the speech of that character.
Which leads me to the most important rule of dialogue writing: read it out loud and follow your ear. In real life, people make errors. They get halfway through a sentence and forget what they said at the beginning. They repeat themselves. They swear. They contradict themselves. They trail off. I love writing dialogue because it’s freeing – it makes you realise how flexible and imperfect and multifaceted our use of language is, and I try not to be afraid to reflect that. If it’s something someone would say, then it’s right.
Imogen Crimp has an MA in contemporary literature from UCL, where she specialised in female modernist writers. After university, she initially trained to be an opera singer, studying at a conservatoire. She lives and works in London.