The inimitable Carys Davies has given us a wonderful article on the magic of dialogue. As Carys puts it: ‘One of the things I’ve come to realise over the years is that my characters only become real to me when I can hear them speak.’
This is part of our Early Career Writers’ Resources pack Dialogue, made possible by Arts Council England. Discover more here →
I never plan what’s going to happen in my short stories or my novels, and I don’t build my characters in a conscious way.
For me, the whole thing is a long, slow, and often exasperating journey full of trial and error, false-starts and failures. I discard almost everything, keeping only what feels real, and one of the things I’ve come to realise over the years is that my characters only become real to me when I can hear them speak. Seeing them helps, but it’s only once they start talking, in voices that are distinctly theirs, and engage in dialogue that’s full of cracks and spaces the reader can look into, that I begin to sense a story taking flight.
I don’t think I completely grasped this until, after years of trying, I finally finished writing what would eventually become the title story of my collection The Redemption of Galen Pike.
For a decade, I’d struggled with this story, certain there was something powerful there if only I could find it. Over and over, I kept returning to what I had – a series of scenes in a Colorado jailhouse, in which a local man visits a prisoner in the days before he’s to be hung for an unspeakable crime. The visitor’s name was Walter, and in the scenes I wrote he would come, and the two men would talk, and I could see them – Walter and Galen Pike – but I couldn’t really hear them. When they spoke, they still felt like characters I’d made up. And then one day, out of the blue, instead of Walter, a woman walked onto a page in my notebook and into the jailhouse. She wore a plain grey dress and flat-heeled boots and her hair was scraped back in a long dry braid and her name was Patience. She told Pike she’d brought him warm biscuits, and cordial, and Pike asked her, was she a preacher?
‘No,’ said Patience. ‘I am your friend.’
It was as if her words had turned a key, and revealed an opening into a story I didn’t know was there.
Until Patience opened her mouth, I’d had no idea what she was going to say. But as soon as she spoke, the whole story seemed to catch fire. It was as if her words had turned a key, and revealed an opening into a story I didn’t know was there. In those five simple monosyllables, I heard bossiness and vulnerability, compassion and pragmatism, generosity and restraint. And there was that word friend. It immediately made me think of The Society of Friends – the Quakers – and I understood at once that Patience was a Quaker. What she’d said had made a relationship of some kind between her and Pike feel inevitable; would it, I wondered, be worldly or spiritual? Or both? Would Pike die, or would he somehow be saved? I didn’t plan. I just kept writing, curious to see what they would say to each other next.
It turned out that in the whole of the story (which is around 4,500 words long), Patience and Pike exchange little more than 150 words of direct speech. But their sparse dialogue – thrown into high relief by the long hours of silence they spend together in Pike’s cell – is the twisty thread that pulls their story forward. It’s a brittle patchwork of questions and answers, echoes and repetitions, truths and half-truths, full of gaps that reveal what they’re not saying to each other – gaps that slowly build the emotional charge of the story and, eventually, make possible the turn in the plot.
It was a thrilling story to write because I never knew what either of them was going to say until they said it, and each time they spoke, I felt the story shift and settle in a new direction. Of course, there were lines of direct speech I ended up cutting or tweaking, but in all the re-writing and editing I did after Patience first walked into my notebook, I never changed that early bit of dialogue. That crisp but resonant reply of hers was the springboard for everything that followed, and it’s always stayed with me: an electrifying reminder that when a character speaks – really speaks – I’d better make sure I’m listening.
Carys Davies’s first novel West (Granta, 2018) won the Wales Book of the Year Fiction Award, was Runner-Up for the Society of Author’s McKitterick Prize and was shortlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize. Her short stories have been widely published in magazines and anthologies and broadcast on BBC Radio 4. They have won the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize, the Society of Authors’ Olive Cook Award, the Royal Society of Literature’s V S Pritchett Prize, and a Northern Writers’ Award, and her second collection, The Redemption of Galen Pike, won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award 2015. The Mission House was a Sunday Times 2020 Novel of the Year.
Images © Jonathan Bean Photography
The Early Career Writers’ Resource Packs are supported by Arts Council England.