speech bubbles

Imagine you’ve been set a narrative or autobiographical writing task and you only have one hour to complete it. An hour! You don’t want to waste time on unnecessary passages. One of the most common trap to fall in is to fill your narrative up with unnecessary dialogue, perhaps dialogue that shows purely functional exchanges and adds nothing to your story. Here is a typical example:

She showed me into the waiting room. “Take a seat,” she said politely.

      “Okay,” I said, and sat down.

     She smiled and asked, “Would you like a cup of tea?”

     I was worried about needing the toilet during the interview, so I said, “No, thanks.”

Now, there are circumstances where the above exchange could be somehow important to the plot – maybe it turns out she’s spying on him, for example. But if it’s just the lead up to a more significant exchange, it is much better reduced to something like this:

She sat me down in the waiting room politely and offered me a cup of tea. I declined, for fear that it would come back to haunt me, or my bladder at least, during the interview.

Here is how Orwell describes the dialogue between the chef du personnel and himself in Down and Out in Paris and London.

 He asked whether I was an experienced dishwasher, and I said that I was; he glanced at my hands and saw that I was lying, but on hearing that I was an Englishman he changed his tone and engaged me.

‘We have been looking for someone to practise our English on,’ he said. ‘Our clients are all Americans, and the only English we know is –’ He repeated something that little boys write on the walls in London. ‘You may be useful. Come downstairs.’

The beginning of the conversation is rendered in reported speech, with the equivalent of perhaps four or five lines of dialogue compressed into one sentence, the humdrum nature of the exchange reflected in the list-like sentence with its coordinating conjunctions and semi-colon. The next piece of dialogue is more significant.For this reason it is put into direct speech, and we get a sense of the chef’s character. Orwell takes care to edit out the obscenity that the chef uses (in autobiography a writer can be as intrusive as he wants) perhaps because a publisher wouldn’t print it in the 1930s, or for humorous effect (see tomorrow’s post).

It’s unlikely that Orwell thought through these choices for every passage in his book: professional writers no doubt have a feel for where best to use reported or direct speech. Novices, as well as students writing assessments, should keep an eye on which they’re using and why.

There’s a lot more to be said about dialogue, and we will return to it in future posts. In the meantime, those of you interested in the process of turning raw dialogue into good prose, could read this post, in which a young writer by the name of Shannon Thompson describes her own process.


Describe an interview you have been to (real or imagined). Use a mixture of reported and direct speech.


2 thoughts on “Selective Dialogue

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