Dialogue with Jane Austen

by | Aug 14, 2009 | Fiction Book Reviews | 1 comment

Being a purebred Southern girl, talking has never been a difficulty for me – however writing about ‘talking’ can be tricky. Dialogue is an important part of relationship-building, therefore it has to be a vital part to any novel.

Among her many literary-genius moments, writing dialogue was one of Jane Austen’s most compelling abilities. Conversations became vats of opportunities to reveal personalities and feelings, without ever having to jump inside someone else’s head. It’s truly remarkable.

For example, the way in which someone speaks, tells the reader a lot about his/her character. Jane knew this and blew the concept out of the water. Consider Mr. Collins for instance (did anyone else snicker). He is known for rattling on about various things, basically just to hear himself talk. The reader quickly realizes Mr. Collins is a pompous, self-important man…just from his letter. That’s before he even starts talking!

On the other hand, Darcy and Elizabeth give short,direct replies – and we end up liking them. Their statements aren’t exaggerated and usually have a tinge of sarcasm laced through them.

This technique reveals characteristics of the one speaking as well as the ones responding to what’s spoken. Within the first few pages of Pride and Prejudice, readers have a ‘handle’ on about six different characters mainly through…dialogue.

A peek? How about we take the Bennets’ responses to Mr. Collins’ letter.

“Though it is difficult,” said Jane, “to guess in what way he can mean to make us the atonement he thinks our due, the wish is certainly to his credit.” (ever the optimist, eh?)
Elizabeth was chiefly struck with his extraordinary deference for Lady Catherine and his kind intention of christening, marrying, and burying his parishioners whenever it was required. (Elizabeth’s wit, of course)
“He must be an oddity, I think,” said she. “I cannot make him out. – There is something very pompous in his stile. – And what can he mean by apologizing for being next in the entail? We cannot suppose he would help it, if he could. – Can he be a sensible man, sir?”
“No, my dear; I think not. I have great hopes of finding him quite the reverse. There is a mixture of servility and self-importance in his letter, which promises well. I am impatient to see him.” (Mr. Bennet’s wit as well – and pleasure in ‘watching’ others’ behavior)
“In point of composition,” said Mary, “his letter does not seem defective. The idea of the olive branch perhaps is not wholly new, yet I think it is well express.” (Where did THAT come from – as usual Mary misses the forest for the…um…olive branch.)

Imagine, if we weaved dialogue as thoughtfully as this, how our stories and characters would come to life.

How about one more:

“You write uncommonly fast.” (says Miss Bingley)
“You are mistaken. I write rather slowly.” (replies Mr. Darcy)
“How many letters you must have occasion to write in the course of a year! Letters of business too! How odious I should think them!” (let’s fill the silence with something, right Caroline.)
“It is fortunate, then, that they fall to my lot instead of to yours.”
“Pray tell your sister that I long to see her.”
“I have already told her so once, by your desire.”
“I am afraid you do not like your pen. Let me mend it for you. I mend pens remarkably well.”
“Thank you – but I always mend my own.”

If you’re familiar with Pride and Prejudice, you’ll have learned that Caroline Bingley has her ‘sights set’ on Darcy. In the longer form of this dialogue, she continues to ‘make conversation’ by just filling the air with words.

Jane takes the four basic tips to writing dialogue and brings her conversations to life – almost like another character (which is #1)
1. Dialogue should tell the reader something about the character.
2. Dialogue should move the story forward – mean something to the story
3. Dialogue should show some sort of tension (good or bad)
4. Dialogue should set a mood.

1 Comment

  1. Lit and Life

    Austen's dialogue is what really makes her books for me. Love it!


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