Potency of Dialogue--Mechanical Distribution--Naturalness--

Directness--Dialect--Situation--Three Resources to Meet

Demands of Situation--Physical Effect--Ellipsis--Elements

of Language--Style--Verbs of Utterance--Transcription of

Speech for it Own Sake--Creative Process.

When the writer of a story is not using narrative or description, he

will be transcribing the speech of his characters. And in the matter of

transcribing speech the writer of fiction has a chance comparable with

that of the dramatist and the practitioner in the graphic arts. The

effect of narrative or description upon a reader is secondary and

derivative; the effect upon him of written speech or dialogue is very

nearly primary. The fiction writer has not the actor's studied tones to

give dialogue complete life and body, but the appeal of written speech

is infinitely more direct and compelling than that of any other sort of

writing. A word is a word, whether spoken or written, and cannot be read

without setting up some echo in the ear. When the writer of a story

describes its hero, a reader may or may not see an image, faint or

distinct, behind the words. But when the writer sets down his hero's

words, a reader cannot choose but hear. Even if the words be unnatural

and stilted, they will be heard. That is why badly managed dialogue is

so potent to ruin a story. The speech of the characters in a story is

strongly impressive, whether for good or ill. The more powerful a tool,

the more damage it will do if mismanaged.

Thus the essential force of dialogue or written speech may be a handicap

or an assistance. If a character's words jar upon a reader, they will do

so strongly, if they are natural and in keeping with the whole

conception of the person, they will do much to give him the breath of

life. It follows that the writer of fiction should give due attention to

the transcription of speech, the more so because superficially the task

is easy.

Perhaps the first consideration is the mere mechanical distribution of

dialogue. In real life only the after-dinner speaker talks at inordinate

length. Conversation, except that of the bore, is essentially

fragmentary. Not only is each person's part fragmentary, but the whole

conversation is usually somewhat brief. People caught in a more or less

rapid sequence of events have no time to talk at length, and a story is

a more or less rapid sequence of events. The writer must counterfeit a

like phase of life with his story, and to do so he must mingle the

mechanical elements of the story in a texture pleasing because varied.

The mechanical elements of a story are its narrative, its description,

and its dialogue or speech of the characters; these must blend and

intermingle, varying the appeal to a reader and simulating the pattern

of life. An unfailing sign of the amateur, at least of the amateur with

no innate sense of fictional values, is a story made up of hard and

angular blocks of narration, description, and dialogue. The skilled

writer--if the particular story permits, a proviso always to be

understood--will intermingle speech with action and description with

both. Dialogue should no more be written pages at a time than should

description, and if a great deal of speech must be transcribed en bloc,

it should be broken up to some extent by descriptive touches and even by

narration more detailed than that part of the story naturally calls for.

The next consideration is to make the people of a story talk naturally.

The necessity has affiliations with the necessity that the speech of any

person be made characteristic, for dialogue is an efficient aid in the

portrayal of character. The writer must make each person talk like a

human being, even if not like some particular human being. Good, nervous

dialogue will be full of elisions, mere exclamations, unfinished

sentences, gaps that a reader will bridge readily for himself. He will

be skilled in the business, for that is the kind of talk addressed to

him every day. In more sedate and leisurely ages, if we may judge from

the tales then written, people could frame a sentence on the lips, but

it is a lost art now. To be "literary" in transcribing speech is to

invoke almost certain failure. "Literary" dialogue usually is ruinous. A

reader's interest may survive stilted and affected narrative or

descriptive writing, for most readers have read so much of such writing

that it is almost expected, but stilted and affected dialogue will kill

interest once and for all. In narrative there is something behind the

word for the reader, even in description there is a faint something, but

in dialogue there is nothing at all. The word is the word; if it fails,

the failure is total.

Yet it will not do to be quite literal in transcribing speech. If the

speech of real life is broken and fragmentary, it is also impossibly

wordy and purposeless. The lawyer who has spent weary hours in reading

transcripts of testimony knows the fact to his cost. The writer of

fiction has not space to set down with minute accuracy just what his

people probably would have said during the progress of the story; he

must counterfeit the auditory impression of real speech by eliding and

leaving sentences unfinished; but this mechanically broken and abrupt

speech must have the purpose and direction which is wanting in real

speech. The characters must not only talk naturally; they must say

certain definite things and convey definite and necessary information,

directly or by implication. There is little need to emphasize here the

necessity that the writer have some fictional purpose in making a

character say something, except to warn against transcribing speech

solely for the sake of its suppositious intrinsic wit or vivacity, for

each story will assert its own claims over the talk of the characters.

The question of dialect has been debated often and at length, both for

and against. There are many fine stories in dialect in whole or in part,

but their merit does not result from the employment of dialect, though

the dialect may be a necessary part of some of them. In the larger

sense, the question is merely one of naturalness. The pronunciation of

no man is in exact accord with the ideal standard of the dictionary; all

have mannerisms of speech and accent. In some sections such mannerisms

are so common and marked as to form a dialect, almost a patois, and, if

a story involves a character from such a district, fidelity to fact

requires the writer to write dialect when the person is speaking.

Dialect in a story must be intelligible to one unfamiliar with it, which

requires the writer to iron out its greatest divergences from the normal

in an endeavor to retain its piquancy while avoiding its obscurity. The

question is not one of technique, but one of material. The only

insistence of technique as to dialect is that it must be intelligible.

Unquestionably there is prejudice against the story told wholly in

strongly marked dialect by a narrating character, both on the part of

editors and readers. The type had a vogue some years ago, but its

commercial and artistic defect is that it tends to be unintelligible.

Dialect is a useful aid in characterization, as is any slighter

mannerism of speech. The matter will be taken up in discussing the

portrayal of character. Here I am concerned only with the more general

aspects of the management of dialogue.

As stated, the first necessity in writing dialogue is to place the word

where it would be spoken in life, during the action, not in isolated

masses of speech. The second necessity is to write naturally, and yet to

invest the hasty and elided speech of the characters with purpose in the

fiction. Dialogue must be not only natural and easy; it also must be

significant, significant in relation to life--which is the matter of

naturalness re-stated--significant in relation to the characters, and

significant in relation to the story. That is to say, the justly written

bit of dialogue will be natural, will illustrate character, and will

inform a reader, directly or by implication, of something he must know

if he is to catch the full savor of the story. These are the most

general conditions to be borne in mind in writing dialogue. It remains

to discuss the necessity that a writer consider the matter of situation

while transcribing speech. The necessity requires discussion. Not only

is it stringent, but it is politely ignored by too many books on


The abstract statement is that the same person will talk differently

according to his situation at the moment. Jones is Jones, of course, but

the Jones who discusses preparedness with Smith is a different Jones

from him who telephones to summon the doctor for his dying child, and

his speech in each case will not be the same. My lady will not berate

her maid for a fault as she will reprove her lover, and the head

bookkeeper talking to a subordinate and to the boss would impress a

listener as two different persons. The man and his speech are influenced

by the event. The writer of fiction, being under constant necessity to

counterfeit life, must keep the speech of his characters in accord with

the situation as well as with the general looseness of actual talk.

It may be said that this necessity to write dialogue with an eye to the

situation of the persons is merely a more narrow phase of the general

necessity to be natural. That is true. The writer will never go astray

who lives his story in imagination and sets down the speech of the

characters as it would have been phrased in actuality. The only trouble

is to determine just how the persons would have spoken, and it is a

trouble because it requires more than a vivid imagination. Imagination

will embody the course of events for a writer, will touch in the setting

with glowing color, but imagination alone will not supply the words

spoken. To find them, the writer must employ his intellectual faculties

as well as his imaginative powers, and precisely for the same reason

that the characters must employ their intellectual faculties in

speaking. One who writes a story lives vicariously, lives another's life

for the time being, and where that other would be forced to think, as in

speaking, the writer must think likewise. Where the other would be

forced only to observe, as in witnessing events or observing setting,

the writer can rely solely on his imaginative powers.

There will be little difficulty in meeting the demands of the situation

that is casual and commonplace. Speech that is merely easy and natural

is adequate. If the incident is not particularly significant in a

dramatic or emotional sense, the way that the character would talk in

such circumstances is not hard to find. The story requires that a

Southern gentleman of the old school welcome a stranger to his house,

let us say; it will not be hard to find the host's words on that

occasion. But suppose he must discover a few pages farther on that the

stranger is his daughter's seducer. What will he say? The writer must

find for him words that will chime with the tensity and dramatic value

of the situation. To meet the necessity the writer has three resources.

The first lies apart from the matter of speech. By just portrayal of the

physical effect of such a discovery upon a character the writer will

accomplish much. To put it flippantly, the character will be made to

talk naturally by making him speechless. To put it justly, in such a

heightened moment in a story narration should be very detailed, and the

writer should show the physical effect of any discovery upon a character

before transcribing the words born of the moment.

The second resource of the writer to meet the necessity that a

character's words fit the emotional and dramatic qualities of a

situation is largely mechanical. Even casual speech is elliptical and

exclamatory; speech born of excitement or agony of soul is strongly so.

The more broken and fragmentary the character's speech, the greater the

suggestion of emotional stress and upheaval.

The third resource of the writer is a matter of diction. English is a

language compounded of Anglo-Saxon and Latin and Greek elements. The

primary basis of the tongue is Anglo-Saxon; that is why it is English,

and not a Romance language. We learn the simpler, less abstract part of

our vocabulary, the part that stands for fundamentals, in childhood; the

rest is acquired later. Not only is the Anglo-Saxon word the word we

know best; it is also the word which will express our deepest loves and

dreads and hates. The Latin element of the language gives it its

flexibility and its capacity to express ideas, but its capacity to

express emotion resides in its Anglo-Saxon element. Love, hate, birth,

death, God, devil, father, mother, sister, brother, sin, lust, greed,

filth, hope, care, weep, laugh, smile--all are strictly English words of

Teutonic origin, and all are much more forceful and suggestive or

connotative than any Anglicised Latin equivalents. The writer of fiction

should realize the fact, and should make his people use strictly English

words when caught in a pregnant situation. A lawyer, in discussing a

case, properly may be made to employ the word deceased, for instance,

but when informed that his wife has died suddenly, "Dead?" he should be

made to say, "Dead?" That is very obvious, of course, but it will serve

for an illustration.[L]

The question of character intrudes here. All speech should be

characteristic of the person uttering it, but the necessity that the

word should fit the moment is more stringent than the necessity that the

word should fit the person, provided that the moment is so tense that

its force might be expected to strip any husk of mannerisms from the

persons involved. Indeed, the more strikingly individual the casual

speech of a character, the greater will be the effect of making him

utter in a crisis the broken and disjointed English words that come to

the lips of all of us when our loves or our pocketbooks are threatened.

After stating the necessity to make dialogue accord with situation, and

after pointing out the three resources of the writer to this end, a word

of caution may not be out of place. In all human probability the writer

will have for the significant situations of his story a much keener

feeling and appreciation than any reader. There is some danger that the

writer's feeling for his own situations will lead him to make his people

talk a thought too brokenly for acceptance by a reader without the same

keen appreciation of all the emotional and dramatic values of the

situations of the story. The danger cannot be overcome by toning down

the dialogue; the writer must force a reader to feel the power of all

the situations of the story. In other words, dialogue in tense

situations must meet the fact of situation, and each situation itself

must be built up for a reader by proper development and adequate writing

of the whole story. The art of fiction is a whole, as a story is a

whole, and perfect handling of one element alone of his story, as the

dialogue, will avail the writer nothing.

In transcribing speech, the less the writer thinks about the style or

manner in which he has chosen to tell the story the better. The first

consideration is to be natural, that is, to write as some real person

would talk, and, if possible, to write as some particular person would

talk. But the general tone of the story must be considered. The

necessity is less stringent or nonexistent in writing the novel, with

its permissible variety of texture, than in writing the short story of

unity of effect. If the people of a story are super-normal, their lips

must not drop banalities. That is a matter of character. But if the

single effect sought to be produced by a story is of horror, for

instance, its people cannot be permitted to make remarks that will

hinder the attainment of the effect, which is a matter of preserving the

general tone of the story. The speech of the characters must be in

keeping with them, in keeping with the significant situations, and in

keeping with the story as a whole.

There is one point about the management of dialogue which should be the

less neglected because it is purely mechanical and very easy. A page of

dialogue should not present to a reader a monotonous succession of "he

saids" and "she saids," simply because the reader will feel the

repetition and some of the illusion of the story be lost. The verbs

characterizing utterance are infinite in number; moreover, it is

frequently possible to set down nothing but the words of the speaking

character. Thus Henry Sydnor Harrison, in "V. V.'s Eyes.":

"'Did she hurt herself?' said Carlisle, third-personally, to the elder

girl, who had suspended her game to stare wide-eyed. 'What on earth is

the matter?'

"The reply was tragically simple:

"'A lady stepped on her Junebug.'"

"Sure enough, full on the vestibule floor lay the murdered slum-bug, who

had too hardily ventured to cross a wealthy benevolent's path. The

string was yet tied to the now futile hind-leg. Carlisle, lingering,

repressed her desire to laugh.

"'Oh!... Well, don't you think you could catch her a new one, perhaps?'

"'Bopper he mout ketch her a new one mebbe tomorrow, mom ... Hiesh,


"Moved by some impulse in her own bouyant mood, Carlisle touched the

littlest girl on the shoulder with a well-gloved finger.

"'Here--Rebecca, poor child!... You can buy yourself something better

than Junebugs.'

"The proprietor of the deceased bug, having raised her damp dark face,

ceased crying instantly. Over the astounding windfall the chubby

fingers closed with a gesture suggesting generations of acquisitiveness.

"'Is it hers to keep?' spoke her aged sister, in a scared voice. 'That

there's a dollar, mum.'

"'Hers to keep ...' replied the goddess, smiling."

Dialogue so managed is infinitely more natural and fitting than the

he-said, she-said sort. Of course, the more characteristic the speech of

the characters, the less the need for verbs of utterance. The primary

office of such verbs is to indicate the person who is speaking, and, if

the words spoken do that, the verb may be omitted. The secondary office

of verbs of utterance is to characterize the manner of speech, and here

it is well not to be too extreme. A character may snarl or bellow or

invite or plead, for instance, but if he is made to flame in words there

will be a suggestion of strain and artificiality for a reader.

Intelligibility and suitable--not unsuitable--variety should be the

writer's aims in managing dialogue.

The total amount of dialogue any story will contain depends on its

nature and character. Possibly it is true that the more strictly

dramatic a story, the greater will be the proportion of dialogue to the

rest of the text. At any rate, a writer should never transcribe speech

at any length simply for its own sake in an endeavor to trick a reader

into thinking that the story is livelier than it is. Dialogue is

attractive to a reader, but it is attractive in a story only when it is

an essential element of the story. The writer should not depend on the

intrinsic wit and vivacity of his characters' speech. Even if it is

interesting in itself, apart from the story, the fact will not help the

story as such, for a reader's attention will be distracted from its

movement. Mr. Dooley's talk is beautiful, read apart and by itself;

thrust into a short story, it would hurt the tale.

Finally, a word as to the actual creative process of writing dialogue.

The way to narrate is to live and see the story's happenings in

imagination; the way to describe is to feel the totality of the story's

environment or setting in imagination as some character or characters

must have felt it; and the way to write dialogue is to be each speaking

character in turn for a space, and to write as the particular person

would have spoken. As stated above, the writer will have to think as

well as to imagine. He will have to comprehend the essential nature of

each speaking character, his personality, education, and habits of life

and mind, in order to discover the words that would be called forth from

such a person by each new event. The task is not easy. But the writer

should bring his full powers to bear upon it, for the dialogue of a

story is tremendously effective, whether for good or ill.


[L] The writer should not have an eye to the origin of his words only

while writing dialogue. In narrating the homely and commonplace event,

and in describing everyday scenes, where the value lies in everyday

associations, the suggestive English word should be used. The matter has

been touched upon, though not in these terms. The whole endeavor in

fiction writing generally should be to make the word chime with the


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