Praise for The Fiction Writer's Guide to Dialogue
In the Words of the Masters, Great Dialogue Sets the Stage
The title of John Hough Jr.’s latest book is quite specific — The Fiction Writer’s Guide to Dialogue. If that seems too fixated on just one aspect of the craft of writing, consider this: The book is so helpful and so much fun, the public may demand Mr. Hough create The Writer’s Guide to Using the Letter T.
The strategy Mr. Hough uses for this book on dialogue is to take the reader on a handheld tour of the masters. It’s like visiting with a large group of old friends and hearing their voices come alive again. Ahab is here, so is Huck Finn, plus characters from Hemingway, Kent Haruf, Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Cormac McCarthy — the list is wonderfully long and varied.
Before we go any further, here is one of the many examples from Ahab; “Aye, Aye! and I’ll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition’s flames before I give him up. And this is what ye have shipped for, men! to chase that white whale on both sides of land, and over all sides of earth, till he spouts black blood and rolls fin over. What say ye men, will ye splice hands on it, now?”
Mr. Hough has been both writing and teaching the craft of writing for most of his life. He holds classes twice a week here on the Island and says that teaching dialogue is often the most fun and the most useful of lessons. Many students are either afraid of writing dialogue or simply lay down the patter of everyday talking, which Mr. Hough says is exactly the wrong way to go about it. To prove this, in his book he includes an example of President Nixon and H. R. Haldeman discussing the impending Watergate break-in, taken from the actual tapes. It should be riveting stuff, considering the high stakes, tension-filled atmosphere of the situation. And yet it is a rambling bore, which is the case with most actual conversations if taken verbatim.
The key to creating great dialogue, Mr. Hough said in a recent interview, is to first think about it as a craft, “and to make every line do something for you, advance plot, build character, surprise the reader. Hold yourself to that standard.”
He admits it can be hard, but it can also be enjoyable, even when the subject is sad. Consider this exchange from William Kennedy’s Ironweed.
“Whatever you been up to?” Rudy asked. “You know somebody buried up there?”
“A little kid I used to know.”
“A kid? What’d he do, die young?”
“What happened to him?”
“He fell where?”
“He fell on the floor.”
“Hell, I fall on the floor about twice a day and I ain’t dead.”
“That’s what you think,” Francis said.
Although Mr. Hough has taught writing for a long time he hadn’t given much thought to putting what he teaches down in book form until an editor at Skyhorse Publishing called him and urged him to consider it. Mr. Hough had been traveling off-Island for the past few years to host a series of weekend writing seminars specifically to lawyers and doctors who were interested in becoming fiction writers. The courses took place twice a year, usually in Falmouth. One of Mr. Hough’s former students sold a book to Skyhorse Publishing and was talking to his editor about how much Mr. Hough’s lessons on dialogue had helped him. This book is essentially a handheld version of Mr. Hough’s classes, and in it he proves why he is such a good teacher. He is thorough and thoughtful, but most of all his enthusiasm for the subject comes through on every page.
There are chapters on the basic mechanics of dialogue and why ending everything with said is much more preferable than giving a descriptor such as he said earnestly. There are chapters on dialect and accents and the benefits and problems of using these devices. There is even a nod to the exclamation point. Don’t use them. Or as William Maxwell, longtime editor at The New Yorker, said, “a writer should be permitted one exclamation point in his or her career.”
And throughout the book Mr. Hough holds up the masters to prove a point, whether to show how dialogue should reveal character and increase tension, how short exchanges are usually the best or how dialogue can be used to quicken or slow down the pace of a scene.
Here is Hemingway in typical quick release prose from The Killers — to the point yet elusive, and always surprising.
“He comes in here to eat every night, don’t he?”
“Sometimes he comes here.”
“If he comes.”
“We know all that, bright boy,” Max said. “Talk about something else. Ever go to the movies?”
“Once in a while.”
“You ought to go to the movies more. The movies are fine for a bright boy like you.”
“What are you going to kill Ole Andreson for? What did he do to you?”
“He never had a chance to do anything to us. He never even seen us.”
Mr. Hough will be holding a talk at the Bunch of Grapes Bookstore on Friday, March 20, beginning at 7 p.m. He will, of course, talk about his book but he has other plans in store, too. “I’d like it to be a workshop,” he said. “For writers to come and even argue with me if they want.”
But before anyone plans to debate Mr. Hough, they should brush up on some good dialogue writing, and this book is the perfect place to start.
“Note how the words fall together,” Mr. Hough writes in his book. “Study cadence, the ebb and flow of speeches, listening as you read.”
And now comes the hard part, choosing a piece of dialogue from the book to end with. There are so many examples that reveal the results of holding each word up to the light before laying it down on the page, clean or dirty, ragged or eloquent, but most of all original.
Here is a passage by Kent Haruf, from his book Plainsong. Mr. Haruf died this past November, but his words live on to delight and instruct us.
“He was nice to me. He would tell me things.”
“Yes. He told me things.”
“Like what for instance?”
“Like once he said I had beautiful eyes. He said my eyes were like black diamonds lit up on a starry night.”
“They are, honey.”
“But nobody ever told me.”
“No,” Maggie said. “They never do.” She looked out through the doorway into the other room. She lifted her teacup and drank it and set it down. “Go on, she said. Do you want to tell the rest?”
— Bill Eville, Vineyard Gazette
Dissecting dialogue with John Hough Jr.
The Fiction Writer’s Guide to Dialogue: A Fresh Look at an Essential Ingredient of the Craft. By John Hough Jr., Allworth Press, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing, Inc., New York. 143 pages, softcover; $14.95. Available at Bunch of Grapes bookstore and at Amazon.com.
John Hough’s how-to book on writing dialogue is valuable to writers and to readers who’ve never written a lick, but have now been invited to look behind the scenes at the writing funhouse.
Going behind the scenes can be disappointing. For example, I have learned never to watch the addenda footage included with DVD movies. And I don’t want to know about the cams and pulleys that make the funhouse floor tilt and shake, for the same reason: The knowledge destroys the magic.
But Mr. Hough has magnified the magic for me in this book. He is a topflight, insightful writer, for one thing. He writes with specificity — this is a guide after all — but he also communicates a sense of his awe about his life’s work, delivered in an often whimsical, always conversational style that connects readers more closely to the requirement of good fiction: that the reader become willing to suspend disbelief.
Mr. Hough presents an accessible package of concrete tips and perspectives on the function of dialogue, delivered in 38 digestible bits under eight themes, for which writers will be grateful. As you probably know, he is the author of six novels, including Seen the Glory: A Novel of the Battle of Gettysburg, winner of the 2010 W.Y. Boyd Award for excellence in military fiction from the American Library Association, and of Little Bighorn (Arcade, 2014). Mr. Hough teaches creative writing at his West Tisbury home and in the Island’s Adult Community Education (ACE MV) program. For many years he taught dialogue at SEAK, Inc., fiction-writing conferences. SEAK (Skills, Education, Achievement, Knowledge) is the acronym for a national continuing-education organization devoted to developing skills, education, achievement, and knowledge.
In The Fiction Writer’s Guide to Dialogue, we are led, through the discussion of specific topics, to the interactive role of literature in our lives. Here’s what I mean: One of Mr. Hough’s tidbits tells us why real-life dialogue doesn’t work in fiction. He uses a conversation from the Watergate tapes, between President Richard M. Nixon and H.R. Haldeman, his chief of staff, to illustrate. Their interchange is a virtually unintelligible mess. James Joyce would be confused. No one would read fictional dialogue written like that conversation.
Mr. Hough’s commentary on the conversation raised this thought with me: Do we love fictional dialogue in part because it represents how we wish we spoke in real life? Mr. Hough answers that question — and more — a few pages later. “In real life we talk around things, we speak idly, but all dialogue in fiction has to reveal something.” Mr. Hough says an accomplished dialogue writer is like a counterfeiter whose output is better than the real thing.
Mr. Hough had me when he repeatedly referenced dialogue from George V. Higgins’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle, a novel about a smalltime Boston criminal, an epiphanic book for me. I was raised in Eddie’s neighborhood, knew those jamokes, and it had never occurred to me that anyone would find anything remotely interesting about that culture. That it could be written by a rich guy from the suburbs with such authenticity boggled my mind. Frankly, it pissed me off. Dear reader, you want to read dialogue that is terse, inelegant, and says the unsaid? Read The Friends of Eddie Coyle.
You will discover your own gems in Mr. Hough’s discourses on the use of dialogue to carry plot, and provide transitions, breaks, and clues to the story’s conclusion.
An added bonus for readers is that Mr. Hough has done a lot of legwork. Within the text, he offers illustrative dialogue written by Melville, Hemingway, Didion et al. At the conclusion of the book, he offers us a list of 41 authors and their books which include great dialogue, according to him.
Obviously I write, and I’ve read a handful of books on the art and process of writing. Most are a tad screedy, and focus on ways to connect with the Muse or how to resolve our inner angst. Mr. Hough has made a valuable pragmatic contribution to the process of writing and reading fiction.
— Jack Shea, MV Times
Advance Praise for Little Bighorn
“LITTLE BIGHORN is the beautifully written, uniquely American story of the coming-of-age of 18-year-old Allen Winslow during the Battle of the Little Bighorn and the fraught weeks immediately preceding it. The novel abounds with memorable characters, including Allen himself, his gorgeous 16-year-old traveling companion, Addie, and the brave but monomaniacal Gen. George Armstrong Custer. Hough loves the American West, loves to tell great stories, and loves his characters—even the flawed and tormented Custer. He is relentless truthful, unfailing entertaining, and transcendently generous. LITTLE BIGHORN is an American masterwork of the ultimate triumph of love and redemption during the so-called “Indian Wars” –surely one of the most detestable eras in all of American’s history. LITTLE BIGHORN is a splendid novel and an important work.”
— Howard Frank Mosher, award-winning author of
Where the Rivers Flow North, Disappearances, Northern Borders, and others
“LITTLE BIGHORN is every bit as remarkable as Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. The characters are vivid, the tension palpable and the dialogue unfeigned. John Hough, Jr. is one the great American novelists alongside Cormac McCarthy and Jonathan Franzen. Reading his novels is like discovering hidden treasures, the writing pure and beautiful.”
— Robert Dugoni, bestselling author of
Jury Master, Damage Control and others
“"John Hough's last book, Seen the Glory, was one of the best Civil War novels I've ever read. Now in LITTLE BIGHORN he’s turned his superb storytelling talents to the epic story of Custer and the Little Bighorn, and the result is wonderful. He brings the great cast of characters alive and breathes new life into one of the great sagas in American history. I read the last hundred pages in one page-turning and finger-burning frenzy, then put the book down and reluctantly returned to our modern world, sorry there wasn’t more to read.”
— James Donovan, author of the bestselling
A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn and The Blood of Heroes
“LITTLE BIGHORN is a potent blend of research and imagination. John Hough has forever changed my view of George Armstrong Custer in this stellar, riveting novel.”
— Ron Rash, award-winning author of The Cove and Serena
“LITTLE BIGHORN is a penetrating and unsentimental look at what we Americans used to call ‘Custer’s last Stand.’ A well-paced story in largely unadorned prose, it forces the reader to ponder anew our country’s attitude toward the western territory and its Native American inhabitants. Hats off to John Hough, Jr.”
— Wayne Caldwell, author of Cataloochee