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Writers on Writing: Selected Quotations


Dialog is first of all vital and interesting in itself. Readers want and need to listen to the characters interact in dialog. Human speech, because it is immediate and dramatic, is one of the things we turn eagerly to fiction to experience. David Madden

Nothing could so quickly cast doubt on, and even destroy, the author’s character as bad dialog. If the people did not talk right, they are not real people. John O'Hara

New writers seem to worry a lot—probably too much—about how often you can get away with writing he said or she said. There are two opposing schools of thought on this. One, subscribed to by some of the greatest writers in the English language, affirms that said is the only verb of attribution needed to identify who is speaking. The other school considers said colorless, preferring more spirited words like mocked, bleated, rasped, ground out, and hissed. This school is heavily represented in the formula romance racks of your supermarket. Aaron Elkins

Dialog requires more art than does any other constituent of the novel….why? Because dialogue must appear realistic without being so. Actual realism—the lifting, as it were, of passages from a stenographer’s take-down of “real life” conversation—would be disruptive. Of what? Of the illusion of the novel. In “real life” everything is diluted; in the novel everything is condensed. Elizabeth Bowen

Dialog presents a terrible temptation. It offers the writer a convenient platform from which to set forth his pet theories and ideas. John Hersey

Uneducated people have a much richer language than educated people, and it is because they are forced to improvise. After you go through college, you have acquired standard, formal English that you’re supposed to speak. People who are raised with parents in a neighborhood where everyone speaks standard, formal English don’t understand the richness of nonstandard speech. Tim Gautreaux

An important rule of thumb, when it comes to imparting background information, is never allow the characters to tell each other anything that they already know. It’s always tempting to explain things to the reader by using this technique, but it’s always a mistake. Ben Bova

One line of dialogue is worth paragraphs of description. No matter what you say about a character, if he doesn’t speak, he hasn’t truly come alive. Leslie Epstein

The dialogue is generally the most agreeable part of the novel; but it is only so as long as it tends in some way to the telling of the main story. It need not seem to be confined to that, but it should always have a tendency in that direction. Anthony Trollope

I like dialect in the right hands….No good writer’s dialogue ever sounds good in a tape recorder. Andre Dubus

Writing good dialect is among the most difficult of the prose acts. It demands, for one thing, uncanny skills in spelling. How do you reproduce, phonetically, one letter at a time, the sounds of accented speech? Such writing demands a keen ear for the cadence of language….Cultivate a keen sense of doubt about using it, and when in doubt, don’t. James J. Kilpatrick

Dialogue, when properly handled, is one of the most entertaining divisions of action. The man who speaks even one truly significant word is as much in action as the man who throws the villain over the cliff from the thundering express train. Elwood Maren

If you substitute “Oh sugar!” for “Oh shit!” because you’re thinking about the Legion of Decency, you are breaking the unspoken contract that exists between writer and reader—your promise to express the truth of how real people act and talk. Stephen King

Don’t have characters call each other by name in dialogue, unless it’s for a specific effect, such as a threat….In real life, people rarely use each other’s names when they’re talking. Cynthia Whitcomb

When I open a book and find that so and so has “answered sharply,” or “spoken tenderly,” I shut it. It’s the dialogue itself which should express the sharpness or the tenderness without any need to use adverbs to underline them. Graham Greene

It is the writer’s privilege to put into the mouths of his characters better speech than they would have been capable of, but only for the purpose of permitting and helping the character to justify himself or what he believes himself to be…. William Faulkner

People only write in careful flowing sentences; they don’t think that way and they don’t talk that way. Tom Wolfe

The use of dialogue in fiction seems to be one of the few things about which a fairly definite rule may be laid down. It should be reserved for the culminating moments, and regarded as the spray into which the great wave of narrative breaks in curving toward the watcher on the shore. Edith Wharton

This page was last updated on: Tuesday, January 22, 2008

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A. James Fisher
Dept. of Political Science & Criminal Justice, 146 Hendricks Hall
Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, Edinboro, PA 16444
e-mail: jfisher@edinboro.edu blog: http://jimfishertruecrime.blogspot.com