Learning to write dialogue

“As a beginning novelist long ago, I learned to write dialogue not in a fiction workshop ruled by a sophisticated “mentor,” but by reading Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter over and over again. There were uncanny reverberations in those short, plain sentences, and a peculiarly suspenseful arrest of a character’s intent. The perfected work was the mentor.”

Cynthia Ozick
“On Being a Novice Playwright”

from The Writing Life anthology

I got into a bit of a dust up over at the Poets and Writers message board some months ago when I asserted that a novice writer really doesn’t need to learn the so-called “rules” of grammar. I believe that one can learn all they need to know by reading good writing. The perfected work can be the mentor, as Ozick says.

I was shouted down, but I still believe I am right.

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4 Comments on “Learning to write dialogue”

  1. Pete Says:

    The down-shouters undoubtedly either: a) don’t read anybody’s work but their own; b) write horribly leaden prose. Or both.

  2. Annam Says:

    I think you can learn quite a bit from reading good writing. As such, equally you can learn quite a bit from reading bad writing.

  3. J.M. Reep Says:

    I define a writer’s “style” as those rules of grammar and composition that the writer has chosen to observe or to ignore. In other words, style is something that is developed consciously, deliberately. You cannot consciously break a rule if you aren’t aware of the rule in the first place. Great writers rarely are slaves to proper grammar, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t spent time learning the rules they are breaking.

  4. Paul Lamb Says:

    J.M. – But I’m not sure why style is/must be developed consciously. Yes, you cannot consciously break a rule you’re not aware of, but you can still break that rule, blithely and to great effect having never been aware that such a “rule” existed. In fact, I’m certain that most grammar mavens routinely break rules that are so obscure or antiquated that even they aren’t aware exist.

    Style, it seems to me, is an organic development, more unconscious than directed.


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