Tuesday, 21 September 2010


I was recently asked by someone if I'd read a short story they'd written. It was a social situation and, put on the spot, I agreed. Oh dear. It was not good. But what struck me most was how dreadful the dialogue was, centering round a discussion about smoking: had they got a cigarette, no, they'd switched to roll-ups, oh really? yes, it was cheaper, and so on and on it went.

Realistic, yes. I don't smoke, but I've certainly had those sorts of conversations about tea (I like it strong, with lots of milk, my sister makes dreadful tea, too impatient for the water to boil, etc), about biscuits, about teenage children, about the weather... Inconsequential conversations are the glue that bind us together in real life.

But they sure are dull to read in fiction.

When you're writing dialogue, ask yourself what information you are giving to the reader. It could be information about character, or information about the plot. It could be information about almost anything, but information must be there. Otherwise, cut it.

This is a section from Alan Ayckbourn's play The Things We Do For Love

Nikki Don’t you get lonely sometimes?

Barbara I have my work. I have Marcus to look after.

Nikki Oh, yes. The famous Marcus. Still the same boss then?

Barbara I suppose you could call him that. Technically. We’re more of a team really. The fact is, Marcus can’t move without me. He says these days I actually get his thoughts just before he does. It’s extraordinary.

Nikki How old is he?

Barbara (airily) Heavens, I don’t know. Forty-five – fifty. I don’t know. (Slight pause) I think he’s forty-eight. Next April. The sixteenth. He’s an Aries. Why?

Nikki Nothing.

Barbara Oh, don’t be so corny, Nikki. For goodness’ sake. He’s got this beautiful young wife. He has Miriam. He has three children. He’s got everything in the world he could possibly want –

Nikki And he has you looking after him at work. Lucky old him.

Barbara That’s my job. Anyway. Enough of me.

We get a lot of factual information about Marcus, but I think you'll agree we know a lot more about Barbara by the end of this section.


Anonymous said...

I would just like to say for the record I make delicate tea, not stuff that should be on a fence.

Sarah Duncan said...

I can call it delicate if you prefer rather than dreadful. However, feel compelled to point out that most people at the very least like to get the outer surface of their teabag wet before removing it from the water. Which is usually boiling, rather than lukewarm.

(PS For any non-family present, this argument has gone on for at least 20 years)

badas2010 said...

"Information must be there - otherwise cut it."
God, that's made me think.
My dialogue, I've always thought, is one of my stronger points, but some of it does go on a bit.
Sod it - back to the drawing board.

Sarah Duncan said...

With the Ayckbourn extract, although there's lots of factual info about Marcus, it's what it tells us about Barbara's character that justifies the inclusion in the play. So sometimes it's not immediately apparent what information is really being given.