Author: John Hough, Jr.
Publisher: Allworth Press
John Hough Jr.'s The Fiction Writer's Guide to Dialogue: A Fresh Look an an Essential Ingredient of the Craft is the latest publication in the swelling ranks of tomes pertaining to the craft of writing.
Hough has been teaching the craft of writing for most of his life and has authored six novels, including Seen the Glory: A Novel of the Battle of Gettysburg that won the 2010 W.Y. Boyd Award for excellence in military fiction from the American Library Association.
Hough hits the nail on the head when he quotes in his introduction the late George V. Higgins sage advice, “a man or woman who does not write good dialogue is not a first-rate writer.” True, we have writers who can tell a story and get it down on paper, yet the writing that emanates is very often dull, it just lies on the page without arousing interest. The characters lack depth and are far from being alive because you can't hear them or see them up close up and their humanity is not put on vivid display. As Hough explains: “their physiognomy in fine detail, their expressions, the animation, or lack of it, in their eyes” is missing. On the other hand, when it is present, you have good fiction. All of this is explored and dissected within the book's eight chapters that are spread over one hundred and thirty-one pages.
Beginning with the mechanics of dialogue, tags, talking verbs, and punctuation, readers are reminded of the wisdom of the recently deceased author of forty five novels, Elmore Leonard who drew up 10 simple rules for writing. These important tips are passed unto to the readers and include such principles as never using a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue, never use an adverb to modify the verb “said,” keeping exclamation points under control, and a few other words of wisdom. To illustrate why dialogue in fiction is not derived from real life, Hough refers to the famous Watergate tapes, which if transcribed word-for-word in a work of fiction would be extremely boring and even confusing. The writer of dialogue is not a “stenographer, writing down what hears; he is an extrapolator.” Readers are advised to keep their writing short and sweet, avoid quirks, tics and habits of real life, omit greetings and salutations, when and how to use repetition, conveying hesitation or halting speech, and the paradox of good dialogue. Other chapters explore voice as a physical description, choreography and description and how it relates to dialogue, telling your story through dialogue, dialect, accents and the vernacular and ending with why Hough loves to write dialogue.
Throughout the book, Hough uses sidebars to highlight some of the more important principles in writing dialogue. Some examples are: if you can cut words without losing meaning, you strengthen what remains: keep your characters from stating the obvious: think of dialogue in fiction as what is left when the extraneous verbiage is stripped away: short speeches keep the tension: a good dialogue writer is a counterfeiter, fashioning currency that is more perfect than the real thing: indirect discourse is your way of controlling the storyteller, and the story. All of these principles are fully explored within the various chapters.
No doubt, for teachers of writing, this is a useful book to place into the hands of all of those aspiring and struggling writers you instruct, whether they’re in middle school, college, or even beyond. And for fiction writers, be they new to writing or veterans this is a book that will prove invaluable. Hough provides a useful and valuable guide to the understanding of dialogue writing-one that should be in every writer's library.