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“Writing dialogue is hard,” he said. “No it isn’t,” she asservated. “It is!” he exclaimed darkly.

I’ve been drawn to discussing dialogue, because, apart from anything else, it’s possibly the most technically difficult part of writing. How difficult is it? Well, the first great novel ever written was Robinson Crusoe. Defoe was so intimidated by dialogue that he decided he’d have just one main character alone on a desert island, and when he was finally ready to bring in someone else, he made sure he’d be unable to converse.
Why is it difficult? Because rather than being just text, saying what’s happening – ‘The dog chased the cat. The cat ran up the tree.’ – which operates at just one level – with dialogue, we have bits of language, in the same sentence, which have quite different statuses. There’s the normal language, saying what’s happening – and there’s what the people are saying, or thinking – which has to be segregated from the normal flow of the text. Different rules apply. Dickens can write perfect, grammatical English, but his characters can say what they like, between those quote marks.
Because these chunks of text are independent, they have to be tethered to the rest of the document. They have to be attributed to a particular person, in most cases. They have to be coordinated with the descriptions of whatever is going on. The easiest way to do this is to write a play. Shakespeare and his contemporaries had a very simple system. They wrote down the name of the character(s) and what they said. If somebody did something, he wrote that down. It’s not surprising that plays preceded the modern novel by a long time.
If you have to write a story to be read, though, instead of a play to be performed, you’re expected to come up with something a bit more fluid. There are a number of ways to do this, and they are far from controversial.
It is possible, when one or more people are talking, to just have the various dialogue chunks, broken apart when someone different speaks.

“Good morning, Mrs Smith. A lovely day, is it not.”
“Good afternoon, Mr Jones. I think not. Bermondsey has been destroyed by giant ice meteorites.”

That particular dialogue has the character identification built in. This isn’t always possible, and when it isn’t, we need to attach the dialogue to the people. Indeed, fragments like the above might work well for a few lines, but it’s very easy to lose track of who is speaking. An alternative is to give the person who is speaking something to do, in the same paragraph.

“You are looking uncommonly beautiful today.” George opened his umbrella and held it upside-down to gather raindrops.
“You disgust me.” Alan spat in the umbrella with practised ease.

This is all very well, but if it’s a lengthy conversation, it becomes tedious and distracting coming up with things for them to do. When they’ve finished grimacing, pulling their ears, shrugging (one of my favourites), and lighting cigars, they still need to interact for a while longer. When this happens, we are in the realm of “he said”.
I’ve been looking on the internet to see what the consensus is. My daughter came home from school having been told that she should use a variety of words to express speech, each one accompanied by a guard of adverbs. This view is opposed by the likes of Elmore Leonard and Stephen King. Leonard and King are very clear. The right word is “said”. No adverbs are to be used. To the purists, even “asked” is considered excessive, the question mark at the end of the sentence being sufficient. When writing such dialogue, the repetition of said…said…said can seem dull. The claim is that it becomes invisible to the reader. Instead of reading
“I am going to go for a walk now,” said Dr Campbell.
“Go! Go, then, and I hope you choke on it,” said Lady McGonegall.

as big chunks of text, the reader simply attaches the spoken phrase to the person saying it. The “said”s vanish. Or at least that’s the theory. Compare with

“I am going to go for a walk now,” sneered Dr Campbell with a sibilant hiss.
“Go! Go, then, and I hope you choke on it,” angrily exclaimed Lady McGonegall.

I decided to do a thorough analysis. Then I decided to not be thorough, but to do a cursory inspection. My books mostly live back in Ireland, and since I just moved house, the handful of books I have over here are still in boxes. No matter. I chose a box at random, plucked out a handful of books, and chose random examples of dialogue.
Firstly, The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party, by Alexander McCall Smith. There are five characters in the scene I randomly selected, four of whom are talking. All their dialogue is firmly attached to the speaker. It simply wouldn’t be practical to present simple chunks of text. Each character is quite distinctive, but not sufficiently to make it that comfortable for the reader. Smith has to allocate the dialogue between his five characters, and he does it with elan.
He starts off with Mma Makutsi and Mr Mateloni doing little bits of business. Mma Makutsi sips tea, Mr Maketoni nurses his mug. However, this isn’t quite enough for Smith. Both have a “said” to make certain. Mma Maketoni’s “said” comes with an adverb. She “said brightly”. Mr Maketoni is adverbless and hence a bit more down to earth. He is the only person whose dialogue is attached to an action only. He frowns, and the frowning means that what follows is said by him. Mma Makutsi also has actions, but they directly relate to the attached speech. She continues twice, she speaks slowly and deliberately – at one stage she pauses. Fanwell ventures. Mr Maketoni mutters. Finally Mma Ramotswe, the lead character, finishes it all off with a blurt. The only one who is given just “he said” is Mr Maketoni, and this tells us that he is considered, phlegmatic, less given to outward emotion.
The result is busy, colourful, bright. Is this the only way to do it? More examples next week.

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