Dialogue is tricky to write. If it isn’t done well, it can slow down the entire narrative of a story, boring readers to tears. In real life, people will pull up a chair and just talk and talk. But if this happens too often in a story, it won’t make for a fascinating read.
Instead, dialogue becomes much more engaging when characters are doing something while speaking. That something could be anything: cooking a meal, eating a meal, cleaning up after the meal, dancing in the kitchen once it is clean. You get the picture.
I recently came across a wonderful example of this in a 1938 novel by Eric Ambler, Epitaph for a Spy (Amazon affiliate link). Ambler is regarded as having invented the modern suspense novel, bringing a realism to the spy genre. As a fan of film noir movies (I’ve seen several films based on Ambler’s work), I decided to pick up this book.
Here’s the story: Josef Vadassy is staying at the Hotel de la Reserve on the French Riviera, hoping to enjoy a few days of relaxation before returning to his language teaching job in Paris. However, when the camera film he drops off to be developed reveals photographs he has not taken of nearby naval defenses, the police arrest him. In order to prove his innocence, he must discover who is the true spy at his hotel.
This was a fun summer read. Since it is one of the very first spy novels, it does read more like a whodunnit, and the plot is a little contrived at the end. There are also conversations where a character will monologue and tell his entire life story in one chapter. This was a convention of the time. (I actually enjoyed them!) Despite these shortcomings, there are many skillfully written parts.
In one, Vadassy tries to question a guest named Schimler to find out if Schimler owns a camera. The dialogue takes place during a game of billiards and is an excellent masterclass in how to interweave dialogue with action. Let’s see how Ambler uses this backdrop to make the conversation as fast and tense as the game.[Read more…]