Book talk: ‘Good dialogue doesn’t necessarily mean accurate dialogue’

George Saunders, Paul Murray and Irvine Welsh on dialogue

George Saunders, Paul Murray and Irvine Welsh. Photograph: David Shankbone

George Saunders, Paul Murray and Irvine Welsh. Photograph: David Shankbone


Earlier in this series, Kevin Barry, Patrick McCabe and Ross Raisin spoke about the importance of characters in a story. Last week, the writers we asked about plot revealed that it was driven by characters, with Lia Mills quoting Elizabeth Bowen: “Dialogue is what characters do to each other.” If you’ve managed to create a three-dimensional, complex cast of characters and a nuanced protagonist, well done: but how do you make them sound authentic?

A lot depends on how they speak: their conversations with other characters as well as their internal voices. Paul Murray, the author of Skippy Dies and forthcoming novel The Mark and the Void, uses a lot of dialogue in his work, purely because he enjoys writing it.

“The way people speak – even if they’re saying very little – tells us so much about them. If you’re writing something with a very complex, propulsive plot, dialogue is less important, but I find myself writing about situations where the characters aren’t in positions of power, act rarely and usually ineptly, so dialogue is their principal means of manifesting in their own world and in the book.”


The function

Few stories avoid dialogue completely, but a writer must decide what its function is: is it solely for exposition, to reveal more about a character, or as a device to move the story along?

Irvine Welsh is well-known for his talky, heavily accented characters, from Trainspotting to Filth and on into his latest book, The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins.

“It’s always going to be all of those three, but it is also possible to tackle exposition and move the story along more effectively with third-person narrative,” he says. “For me it’s primarily, though not exclusively, about revealing more about a character.” Articulating a character’s thoughts is a handy shortcut for revealing their inner lives or backstories, but overuse can be fatal.

American writer George Saunders, author of Pastoralia and the award-winning short-story collection Tenth of December, offers a lesson in one of the most common problems. “The biggest pitfall is the assumption that dialogue in fiction should mimic dialogue in real life. So there’s lots of faithful rendering that should get left out. Another is ‘exposition in dialogue’, wherein the author has the characters provide information they would never in real life provide.”

He provides the following example:

“Hi, Tom,” said Becky. “Are you still a middle-aged man who spent some formative years in Pakistan who is becoming increasingly frustrated with your wife, Sally?”

“Yes,” said Tom.

“Gosh, that’s too bad,” said Becky.

“And how about you?” said Tom. “Do you still have nightmares of that terrible night on which your house, a late-Tudor style mansion near the lake, that lake in which there is purported to be a sea monster, burned down?”

“I suppose I do,” said Becky.

Readers may want to know everything about your characters, but writers don’t need to deploy them as non-stop ventriloquists. It is crucial to convey what the characters want to say while being truthful to their way of expressing themselves. A simple test is to keep asking: would they actually say this?

“Writers should play to their strengths,” says Paul Murray, “and if dialogue is something they’re not especially comfortable with, they oughtn’t feel compelled to put direct speech in just for the sake of it. Bad dialogue arguably grates more than bad writing elsewhere, so if you’ve got an incurable tin ear, it’s maybe best that you concentrate on the elements that you’re good at and enjoy.”

Saunders agrees that a writer should focus on what they do well. “If a person can write killer physical descriptions (paging Mr Dickens) then he should create as many occasions as he can for this. So if Superman’s gift is that he can fly, then he’s going to do best in situations where only flying will do the trick, and he should arrange accordingly. Likewise with dialogue: if a person can write line after line of killer dialogue that has the effect of keeping the reader going – why not? Conversely, if a person stinks at it, she should feel no compulsion to ‘put some in’. Just skip it, and the resulting structure (the ways she finds to allow herself the privilege of using no dialogue) will be somehow truer and more compelling.”

It’s the writer’s call on how much of the story is conveyed via interactions. “It’s not just down to aesthetics,” says Welsh, “it’s also about the type of story you are writing. If it’s very plot-driven, you won’t need loads of dialogue. If it’s more about character, you will need to be more extravagant with it.”


Comedy value

For many writers – Paul Murray included – interaction between characters is often where most of a book’s comedy comes from. “Dialogue allows opportunities for humour that wouldn’t be available otherwise, and just generally brings a scene to life.”

In order to bring a person to life, Kevin Barry has frequently spoken of the importance of reading aloud what your characters say (accents and speech tics included). Welsh agrees that this “is the only way”.

Good dialogue doesn’t necessarily mean accurate dialogue. Saunders prioritises the need for the fictive voice to be compelling ahead of authenticity: “It’s a compressed or highly stylised version of real speech. Its goal is to be charming and maybe allude to or evoke a certain type of person or human tendency in the process. But mostly it’s there to serve the story.”

Murray offers some simple, important advice. “The best way of developing your dialogue, of course, is just to listen. If you resist the temptation to put on your headphones, and keep your ears open, wherever you might be, you’ll soon find that you’ve amassed a much bigger archive of voices than you might have expected.”

How to Write a Book continues every Monday



  • Dialogue can be your best source of humour.
  • Characters can articulate their thoughts, to move things along, but overuse this at your peril.
  • Read dialogue out loud, verbal tics and all.
  • Listen: all the time, to everyone. Take off your headphones and be aware.

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