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Jo-Anne Richards

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Writing Secrets: Dialogue scraps do not make scenes

“Hey Audrey.”

Jane appeared in her office doorway. “It’s Friday. Shouldn’t we reward ourselves with a drink?”

“Great idea. Giles at 6?”

“Perfect. I’ll see you then.”

I keep discovering little dialogue scraps like this in the manuscripts of our mentees. Perhaps it’s been ingrained in us that we should use more dialogue; include more scenes. But the fact is that, like everything else in a book, dialogue must have a job to do. This dialogue has no dramatic purpose at all. And it doesn’t illuminate the two characters in any way.

We could run the scene in the pub, during which our protagonist says to Audrey: “Thanks for suggesting this. I needed it.” Or simply mention: Audrey had popped into her office earlier and invited her for a drink.

The fact is that the little interchange above is not a scene. It would only become a scene if our protagonist faced something – even something small. Perhaps we come upon her fighting the photo-copy machine. She has to get copies of her report out before the meeting at 3 and it is not co-operating. She gives it a surreptitious kick, fights panic and punches the copy button.

Audrey comes up, and laughs, which infuriates her even more. “You look like you need a drink,” says Audrey…

Ah, now it’s a scene infused with literary tension. It takes the story forward, in that now we know why she ends up in a pub where either a bomb goes off or she meets someone important to her life. And it gives us further insight into our protagonist’s character and personality.

It’s also more than a random invitation. If our protagonist meets someone significant while she’s out with Audrey, we won’t be satisfied with an invitation that smacks of co-incidence. Either it’s been set up already that the two women meet every Friday in the same place, or … we’d like a little motivation.


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