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. 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.
Vadassy and Schimler have just played one game in silence that Vadassy has lost. Schimler remarks that Vadassy is not good at the game but offers a rematch. We’ll dive into the scene at this point. I’ve truncated it a bit. You can read it in full in chapter 7 of Epitaph for a Spy, titled “Russian Billiards.”
His [Schimler’s] manner was abrupt, almost brusque, but there was something tremendously sympathetic about him…I had almost forgotten that this was Suspect Number One. I was soon reminded of the fact.
With that last sentence, Ambler entices us to continue reading. How will Vadassy be reminded of that fact? What is going to happen? Sentences like these are a fantastic way to keep the narrative moving forward. Copywriters call them “seeds of curiosity.” Read more about how to use them in fiction and nonfiction writing in my article here.
Ambler doesn’t satisfy our curiosity right away. Instead, he continues setting the scene.
He turned the scoring dials back to zero, chalked his cue, and leaned forward to make the first shot. The light from the window falling on his face threw the wide cheek-bones into relief, modeled the tapering cheeks, put a high-light on the broad forehead…The hands, too, were…finely proportioned, and firm and precise in their movements. His fingers lightly grasping the cue moved it easily across the thumb of his left hand.
When your characters are physically moving in a scene, you can interwork description naturally into the action. Ambler doesn’t slam on the breaks and give a police report of what Schimler looks like. Instead, he describes the light falling across his face as he aims his shot, his hands as he grasps the cue. His movements reveal a lot about his personality. This character is cool and confident.
It also doesn’t feel at all unnatural that Vadassy would be looking at Schimler and describing him. Whenever you play a turn based game, you often spend a lot of time staring at other peoples’ faces.
Sometimes an author tries to force character description into a scene, and it comes across as unnatural. For instance, a character gazes at themselves in a mirror as if it’s the first time they’ve ever seen their face. Instead, think about how you can include such description in an unobtrusive way.
All right. Back to the action.
His eye was on the red ball when he spoke.
‘You’ve had some trouble with the police, haven’t you?’
It was said as casually as if he were asking the time. The next moment there was a crash as three balls dropped in quick succession.
Here Schimler asks a very direct question, bordering on impolite. Vadassy is supposed to be the one questioning Schimler, but the latter has turned the tables. The balls make a crashing sound, just like how the question unexpectedly breaks the silence. Thus, the billiard game in a way is mirroring the dialogue. This adds an additional layer of complexity to the scene.
I tried to be equally casual.
‘Good shot! Yes, there was a mistake over my passport.’
He moved round the table slightly to alter the alignment of the balls.
‘Yugo-slav, aren’t you?’ …
At this point, Ambler has dropped dialogue tags. Since there are only two characters, we can easily follow who is saying what. We also don’t need it spelled out for us how each line is being delivered (angrily, calmly, etc.). It is clear from the words themselves.
The dialogue is short and rapid, just like a real conversation.
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t use dialogue tags at all. You’ll notice that Ambler varies his technique throughout the scene. Sometimes he uses action to indicate who is saying what or how they feel and sometimes he uses a dialogue tag. There needs to be a variety, even to the length of sentences, or the scene will feel off balance.
…I bent over the table. Two could play at this game.
‘…You’re German, aren’t you?’
I managed to hole the red in a low number.
‘Good shot! You’re improving.’ But he didn’t answer my question. I tried again.
‘It’s unusual to meet Germans holiday-making abroad these days.’
I potted the red again.
‘Splendid! You’re doing very well. What were you saying?’
Again, Ambler mirrors the dialogue to the billiard game. Vadassy says, “Two could play at this game.” He’s obviously referring to the game of espionage, but he also goes on to sink two balls.
Notice also how Schimler avoids answering Vadassy’s questions. This adds tension to the scene. Is Schimler intentionally ignoring Vadassy? Or did he really not hear the question?
Vadassy is forced to repeat his last sentence that Germans don’t commonly holiday abroad. Schimler responds,
‘Yes? But that doesn’t worry me. I am from Basel.’
This was a direct lie. In my excitement I holed my own ball without cannoning off another.
…His score mounted rapidly.
Vadassy knows that Schimler has lied to him and believes more than ever that Schimler is the spy. However, instead of just writing that Vadassy is nervously excited, Ambler is able to further reveal this by showing how Vadassy messes up his shot. Vadassy has lost control of the conversation, and he is now quickly losing the game as well.
I’ll skip a little ahead here. Instead of Vadassy questioning Schimler, the German subtly begins to question him and learns much more about him than vice versa. This disconcerts Vadassy, and Ambler moves into Vadassy’s head to reveal his thoughts. Notice that Ambler still interweaves these thoughts with actions on the billiard table to keep the narrative moving forward.
I played, but I played badly, for I could not keep my thoughts on the game. Three times I knocked the pin over. Once I missed the ball completely. …What was this man trying to get out of me? … This man could not be a spy. There was something about him that made the idea seem absurd. A certain dignity. Besides, did spies quote Hegel? Did they read Nietzsche? Well, his own answer would do there: ‘Why shouldn’t they?’ What did it matter, anyway? One might just as well ask, ‘Do spies make good husbands?’ Why shouldn’t they? Why not, indeed?
Vadassy is reflecting on previous conversations with Schimler where they talked about philosophy. He thinks it’s ridiculous that a spy would read Nietzsche and talk about Hegel. But why not? He realizes that anyone could be a spy.
Here Ambler hints at one of the themes of the novel: ordinary people getting caught up in a war and suddenly being unable to trust anyone. Everyone is an enemy. Anywhere could be life-threatening. By moving into Vadassy’s head, Ambler is able to make the scene more profound.
Check out my article and video about the ladder of abstraction. I discuss how the most compelling stories incorporate philosophical questions and struggles that are universal to humans no matter what age they’re living in.
The passage into Vadassy’s thoughts has made us pause from the fast moving dialogue. Ambler acknowledges that:
‘Your shot, my friend.’
‘I’m sorry. I was thinking of something else.’
‘Oh!’ He smiled slightly. ‘This can’t be a very entertaining game for you. Shall we stop?’…
If you have a character check out for several seconds from a conversation, make sure that there isn’t a jump in time. For example, you could write something like, “While he was thinking all this…”
I’ll skip forward a little bit more. The narrative moves back into Vadassy’s head, and he decides to ask Schimler point blank if he owns a camera.
‘I am,’ I went on, as I moved round for the next shot, ‘a man of one hobby.’
I failed to score and he took his place at the table.
Again, I love the double meaning here. Vadassy fails to score, and his statement also arouses very little interest in Schimler.
‘Yes. It is photography.’
He squinted along his cue.
‘That must be very nice for you.’
I watched him narrowly as I asked the fatal question.
‘Have you a camera?’
He stood up slowly and looked at me.
Finally, Vadassy has broken Schimler’s composure or so we think. But again Schimler doesn’t answer right away:
‘Herr Vadassy, do you mind not talking while I make this shot? … You see, I am going to hit the cush there, graze that white, hit the cush again, and send the red into maximum. The white should roll into a five.‘
Ambler hasn’t described the billiard table at all, but with these lines I could see it vividly and Schimler leaning over and pointing at it. This is another wonderful way to make the scene feel even more real.
Vadassy apologizes for interrupting, but Schimler says he’s the one who should beg Vadassy’s pardon and then goes on:
‘… This absurd game interests me…It deprives you of the necessity for thinking. As soon as you start to think, you play badly. Have I a camera! I have no camera. I cannot, indeed, remember the last time I held a camera in my hands. It should require no thought on my part to produce that answer. Yet the distraction is sufficient to break the spell. The shot would have failed.’
He spoke solemnly. The fate of worlds might have depended on the success of the shot. Yet in his eyes, those very expressive eyes, there was a gleam of mockery. I thought I knew the reason for that gleam.
‘I can see,’ I remarked, ‘that I shall never be able to play this game.’
This scene goes on a little bit longer, but I think that’s a great place to end it for our purposes. Vadassy is bad at billiards and bad at espionage. Again, he believes Schimmler is lying to him but has no way to prove it or to get the truth out of him. I love how Schimmler says hardly anything throughout the earlier dialogue and then has a long outburst at the end. It is much more impactful because of the contrast with how little he said before. But through it all he remains composed and in control.
The billiard game was an excellent framing device for the conversation and helped to enhance the cat and mouse nature of the dialogue. When you’re choosing the action your characters will be performing during a conversation, think about how you can tie that back to the themes of your book in some way and to the mood of the scene.
I hope you enjoyed this masterclass in writing fantastic dialogue from Eric Ambler. Be sure to check out my article “3 Tips From F. Scott Fitzgerald for Writing Masterful Dialogue” for more techniques to make your dialogue come alive on the page. And in my video on close reading, you’ll discover how you can dive into a well-written passage of a book to identify techniques you can use in your own writing.
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Thank you! Wishing you much success with your writing projects! God bless.