Towards an Understanding of Dialogue in Style-Driven Fiction

Well, I meant to write something today about Jan Morris’ Last Letters from Hav, which is a phenomenal book with a strange and challenging structure that holds all kinds of lessons for somebody like me who would absolutely love to sell fiction on the merits of weirdness and style alone. But, big turkey that I am, I took the book with me to Boston this weekend and forgot it somewhere, so cannot accurately quote examples.

Instead I thought I would just try laying out the bones of the argument I would have tried to make.

This year’s Never-Ending Odyssey workshop master class focused on dialogue. I consider myself not so hot at dialogue, so was looking forward to an opportunity to learn why and what I could do about it. But as lecture after lecture rolled off me like water off a duck, I began to realize that part of what makes me do poorly at dialogue is that I don’t enjoy writing it, and maybe what stops me from enjoying it is the fact that good dialogue, at least in the sense that it was being taught here (by genre writers, for genre writers) doesn’t serve the same purposes in the kind of stories I like to write (those with atypical structure and nontraditional plot).

I came home from TNEO with the idea of looking through great examples of the kinds of fiction I do like to write and figuring out where and how their use of dialogue diverges from, say, the snappy repartee of a Raymond Chandler detective, and where (if at all) it follows the same rules. Last Letters from Hav would have made a great case study (and still will if I can figure out where my copy went), because not only does it lack a traditional plot structure, but it’s designed not to read like a work of fiction at all. It’s fiction masquerading as nonfiction. So its characters aren’t required to further any plot, but rather are expected to act like real people: random, arbitrary, at times even dull, driven by their own purposes rather than the author’s, yet in reality just as constructed and unreal. Especially since one of Morris’ strengths is the style of her prose, so in order for us to believe Letters from Hav as a continuation of her actual nonfiction writings, we have to experience the “real” residents of Hav as filtered through the author’s erudition and wry commentary.

Which, of course, I can’t really do, because I haven’t got the book.

But the idea is to do a similar thing with a variety of atypical fiction. Borges and Lucius Shepard immediately come to mind, but I’ll throw in any other idea/theme-driven (rather than plot-driven) prose stylists I can come up with. Poe? Ray Bradbury? Vonnegut? Ken Kesey? Umberto Eco possibly. Maybe even Dostoevsky.

Obviously this is going to be a long-term undertaking.


  1. Seems like a very worthwhile project.
    I’m traveling right now, away from our at-home library, but thinking about atypical dialogue and idea/theme-driven authors, I also thought about Michel Houellebecq, French bad boy, and how often he mixes in tirades and ‘non-realistic’ dialogue. Also Don DeLillo is, I think, a terrific stylist in terms of his dialogue, very pleasurable, especially _Underworld_ and _White Noise_.

    1. Yeah. Tirades. I like those. I did one in “Tarrying Messenger” and then had to read it aloud at Readercon and thought, damn, nobody talks like this. 🙂

      I have not read any Houllebecq and a precious little Don DeLillo. I should probably try them out.

      1. Bet it was a fine tirade though. 🙂
        I have mixed feelings about Houllebecq, but he’s worth taking a look at, without a doubt. And _Underworld_ I definitely recommend. _White Noise_ and _Libra_ too, but I don’t know your tastes well enough to know which one you’d prefer.

    1. Keep it! I will find my own. I’m pretty sure I didn’t just abandon it on a bridge piling somewhere. It must be in the house of somebody I visited. Or somewhere hiding in my car. I dunno.

Leave a Reply to mjd Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *