5 Books With Dialogue That Speaks To Us

By: Sam Fletcher, December 20th, 2023 6:12 am.

The ‘show, don’t tell’ mantra may hold true, but a well-chosen phrase can really pack a punch.

Elmore Leonard suggested that characters should ‘audition’ for the reader’s attention early on. But dialogue is also a powerful tool for fleshing them out, pivoting a story’s direction with a single line (looking at you, Hemingway).

And sometimes, it’s just fun to simply crack a funny.

So, what makes for great dialogue, and who delivers some of the best?

‘True Grit’ – Charles Portis (1968)

View on Amazon.com“Nothing I like to do pays well.”

Speaking out of the sides of their mouths, the characters here deliver countless snappy one-liners amidst the action.

Narrated by Mattie Ross, the story follows a relentless fourteen-year-old girl navigating the lawless frontier of the 1870s. Despite her young age, it’s clear that she’s had to grow up fast. Portis strikes a perfect balance between making the dialogue authentic to its time and accessible to contemporary readers.

Traveling from her family home in Yell County, Ross seeks to avenge her father’s death and reclaim their stolen horses, leading her to hire the tough U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn.

Characters are defined by their sharp, frank dialogue, embodying the grit of the era (true grit, if you will). It’s no wonder the Coen brothers wanted to capture this original charm and humor by sidestepping the 1969 John Wayne film. The book is an American classic and for good reason.

But there’s also a lot to be said for characters who don’t mince their words, as with…

‘Rum Punch’ – Elmore Leonard (1992)

View on Amazon.com“You look back,” Max said, “you can’t believe that much time went by. You look ahead and you think, shit, if it goes that fast I better do something with it.”

Honestly, I could’ve picked any Elmore Leonard book, so I chose one of the punchiest.

Here we meet Jackie Burke, a forty-something stewardess smuggling illicit cash into the States. She works for Ordell Robbie, a gunrunner looking to hit the big time, but she’s soon caught between the law and criminals. Helped by bail bondsman Max Cherry, she plays them off against one another, all set against a laid-back South Florida backdrop.

Leonard is all about character, with not a single line wasted. While the chitchat may seem idle on the surface, there’s nothing small about any of his talk. It’s instantly direct, immediately conveying everything that needs to be said about a character. And it’s this that drew Tarantino to adapt the script for 1997’s ‘Jackie Brown.’

Each character is vivid and distinct, with the writing itself unmistakably Leonard’s. Despite his intricate plots, his depiction of small-time crooks operating on the lower rungs of the criminal ladder seems to drift effortlessly by. Dialogue is central to establishing this, capturing the essence of a slice of Americana that’s rarely seen.

And then there are times when speech really hammers home an important message, bringing us to our next title.

‘Beloved’ – Toni Morrison (1987)

“It’s gonna hurt, now,” said Amy. “Anything dead coming back to life hurts.”

View on Amazon.comIt breaks immersion when characters deliver messages directly. They have something important to say and everything else can just wait. Well this isn’t the case with Morrison as she creates an entire world for everyone to inhabit. Perfect harmony to engage with her ideas.

Set in Cincinnati 1873, the protagonist, Sethe, has been haunted by the memories of slavery from the Sweet Home plantation she escaped years earlier. But it’s not just her past that troubles her; Sethe is also tormented by the ghost of her nameless child, whose tombstone bears the single word ‘Beloved.’ Complicating matters further, a young girl, who refers to herself as Beloved, appears out of the water near Sethe’s home, bringing with her a wave of unresolved torment.

Both Morrison and her characters speak with strength. It is an impressive juggling act she manages, making it all seem so effortless. While Beloved being a cipher is essential to the story, her enigmatic nature is given life through Morrison’s vivid prose. And the same rings true for every character whose words are visibly spoken on the page, bringing to life the world, and trauma, they’re enduring.

But grounded realism can also be useful, helping readers to empathize with what’s being said, as we’ll see in…

‘Of Mice and Men’ – John Steinbeck (1937)

View on Amazon.com“I got you to look after me, and you got me to look after you, and that’s why.”

Everyone’s favorite high-school text, this classic has withstood countless last-minute book reports for good reason. Rich with clarity as if spoken aloud, Steinbeck famously had an ear for the way real people spoke, allowing his prose to simply flow across the page.

Cast against the backdrop of the Great Depression, two laborers working the California fields have forged a deep and lasting bond. Lennie Smalls, a man of great strength yet developmentally challenged, forms a stark contrast to the short and intelligent, though uneducated, George Milton. Working together, they share a dream of owning an acre of land with a shack to call home.

I could’ve just as easily picked ‘The Grapes of Wrath,’ but I believe the characters here truly showcase Steinbeck’s mastery of dialogue. Plus it’s a short (and maybe not-so-sweet) gateway into Steinbeck for the uninitiated. Honest and direct in the way they speak, everyone feels authentic. Capturing a moment in time, it provides a clear snapshot into the past, immortalizing the people living there.

Other times it’s easier just to let loose though, and have some fun, as with our last choice.

‘A God and His Gifts’ – Ivy Compton-Burnett (1963)

View on Amazon.com“I have carried a man’s burdens, given up a man’s gains, done the work of men. It is my nature that enables me to do it. It is the force in me that carries me on.”

An Ivy Compton-Burnett novel without dialogue is like an Oscar Wilde piece without, er, well, dialogue. Burnett takes it to the next level though, with plot becoming secondary to what’s said.

The story, for what it is, is set in Edwardian era upper-class society, focusing on the family life of Hereward Egerton. On the surface he has a seemingly respectable marriage to Ada Merton. But, behind the velvet curtain, Hereward’s views on relationships and life are markedly nontraditional. Somewhat delusional, he’s constantly justifying his behavior (as the quote above shows).

Just imagine catching conversation snippets from across a restaurant. You can’t help but overhear, you’re not exactly sure who’s speaking, but you’re loving the rhythm and flow. This comic novel offers precisely that guilt-free. So eavesdrop to your heart’s content.

And everyone’s so sharp as well. Of course children aren’t usually as quick witted as that in real-life, but this isn’t that. This is the perfect conversation we map out in our imagination, complete with the hilarious comebacks hours too late (‘Oh my god, I really should’ve said that…’). Simply dive in and not have to worry about killing the jokes—you can just sit back and enjoy.

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