Let’s talk about this: who has got a good ear for dialogue?


There’s been quite a bit of interesting discussion of late in the comments about what does and does not constitute good dialogue. Why, just the other day, a reader asked a startlingly simple but trenchant question: what authors did I think had a good ear for dialogue?

Immediately, as is my wont, I started thinking of authors — specifically, those who write the kinds of books I happen to be reading at the moment. That’s not altogether surprising, since not everyone reads every category of book, and what might ring true on a memoir’s pages could come across as maddeningly incommunicative in a mystery. What works beautifully in literary fiction might seem downright florid in a Western, and heaven knows, however finely “Whatever!” might fit into a YA scene, it would just seem out of place in most adult fiction.

In short, what might be a good recommendation to a writer in one genre would not necessarily be useful for a writer in another. But you, my friends, read and write across every conceivable book category, don’t you?

Here is what I propose, if you are up for it: tell me which writers in your chosen book category have the best ear for dialogue, and why you think so. To render these stirring endorsements more useful as examples to others, kindly mention the category in which you write.

The authors you name need not necessarily be your favorite writers, or even those you believe to be exceptionally good ones. What I am hoping to hear is who you think is the best at writing dialogue that rings true to the characters peopling the lifeworlds in these books.

Since the asker of the original question writes YA Fantasy, I would particularly like to hear from writers of YA and fantasy, respectively, but honestly, the more book categories we can address here, the better. Also, the more of you who weigh in, the better an idea I shall have of what kind of examples will best speak to you in future posts.

In case I’m being too subtle here: if you want me to talk more about your chosen kind of writing, this would be an excellent opportunity to offer me incentive to do it. Heck, get your whole writing group to chime in.

So please let me hear your thoughts on the subject! I’d love to hear your suggestions and insights. And, of course, keep up the good work!

5 Replies to “Let’s talk about this: who has got a good ear for dialogue?”

  1. I write historical fiction, and I can think of two wonderful examples: one classic, and one modern.

    Tolstoy — Delves deep into the psychology of his characters, which renders dialogue that’s perfectly in keeping with the characterizations he represents.

    Dorothy Dunnett — Her words radiate off the page. The dialogue is at once brilliantly witty and devastatingly trenchant, yet it remains true-to-life and believable. You WANT to meet people who speak like this in real life, but know you’d be overawed if you did.

    Honorable mentions from categories I don’t write in: Guy Gavriel Kay, Neil Gaiman (fantasy); Ayn Rand (literary fiction) Shakespeare, Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen (Ye Olde).

    1. I’d have to agree with Charlotte with Tolstoy. He’s amazing.

      I also really enjoy DeLillo except for the times that it gets so florid that you’re thinking that there is absolutely no way that anyone could actually speak like that. He has a fantastic style that lends itself to to the natural way that people speak to each other.

      Hemingway is another that lends itself to that style… I’m trying to remember the title of one short story in particular that was just so exquisite with its dialogue (the whole thing was just between these two boys, getting drunk on their father’s whiskey) that made me so excited and after reading it, I ran to my computer and wrote all night.

      Flannery O’Connor is perfect for my specific story that I’m writing right now, although I don’t know if most people would technically want her regional dialogue. She has such a wonderful ear for dialect.

  2. When I think of good dialogue, I think of good characters, and that may not be the same thing. But the names that are coming to my head when I put my YA fantasy hat on are those with strong characters – voice is so important with a character.

    So I’m thinking Terry Pratchett (not strictly YA but he has that style), or Diana Wynne Jones or Lloyd Alexander or Jonathan Stroud’s Bartemaus books.

    If I’m going just for dialogue, I’d turn to the great comedy films of the ’30s like His Girl Friday or Philadelphia Story.

    1. Wow, Laurie — I’m trying to picture that kind of rapid-fire Charles MacArthur/Philip Barry dialogue on a novel’s page. It would be magnificent if it worked, but since the style of delivery was so important in the plays, the framing would be difficult. I’d love to see a YA fantasy writer pull it off, though!

      You’re right that it’s difficult to separate good dialogue from well-developed characters, but you’d be surprised by how many otherwise beautifully-rounded characters say dull or predictable things in submissions.

  3. Anne,
    I grabbed two epic historic novels off my bookshelf and checked their dialogue to make sure they were worthwhile recommending.

    The first is Lavinia by Ursula K. LeGuin and Hades’ Daughter Book One of the Troy Game series by Sara Douglass.

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