Tuesday, February 17, 2015

“Don’t Be Afraid of Dialogue”

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I took an advanced fiction class with the multi-talented Mary-Rose Hayes (maryrosehayes.com), entitled “Don’t Be Afraid of Dialogue.”

Dialogue, she said, involves listening and hearing, as well as speaking. The basic “Rule of Dialogue” for writers is to “watch and listen.”

Photo by Jason McHuff
Ride public transport, she urged, and listen to what your fellow passengers say and how they sound. She recounted being on a bus in San Francisco behind two women, loaded down with enormous bags of produce they had just purchased at market. They were speaking Mandarin. Then, one of them sneezed and the other said, “Gesundheit!” That gem went into one of her stories.

Listen to children, she suggested, how they talk to each other and how they talk to adults. By way of example, her “perfect” very young
grandson was spending an afternoon with her. Hayes’ friend greeted the child, “Hello, Lucca. How are you?” “I’m fine,” he replied. “And how is your Mummy?” “Mum’s mad.” “Oh, dear,” said the lady, “Why is your Mum mad?” to which young Lucca said, “She got another fucking parking ticket!”

Consider using dialog as the first sentence in a story or novel, she said. She gave as an example this opening line: “So,” she said, “You’ve come back.” A great hook because it immediately engages the reader: Who is she? Who is he? Where has he been? Is she glad he’s back? Is he?

Hayes recommended that we read Rumer Godden’s IN THE HOUSE OF BREDE. Godden, she said, is a master at illustrating past events, physically describing characters and the relationship of characters, one to the other – all through dialogue. For the use of foreign language in dialogue, “which can be a real stopper”, she recommended studying the work of poet Richard Blanco.

As examples of phonetic spelling in dialect (which should be avoided), she directed us to passages by Stephen Crane and Henry Roth. For dialect through idiom and rhythm, Kathryn Stockett. For another way of showing dialect: Tom Wolfe.

The best quote of the session concerned the use of obscenities. “Hemingway said he never used an obscenity that hadn’t been around for a thousand years.” Those good, solid Anglo-Saxon words never get dated – as Hayes’ little grandson amply demonstrated. 


  1. I wish I could have taken this class. When I was acting, I learned a technique on how memorize a page a minute of dialogue for soap operas taught by my good friend, Russ Weatherford. First you listen to conversations in a dining booth behind you and then when you are memorizing your lines, you memorize everyones. Out loud, you would say a line and then "and he said, xxxx. And then ? said xxxx. It worked so well, I could memorize a page a minute. It helped with character interpretation as well. Amazing how just listening, paying attention helps writers too.

  2. fabulous tips on dialogue .. thank you marian