Dissecting dialogue with John Hough Jr.

The author’s latest is a guide for fiction writers and readers alike.

John Hough Jr.'s latest book is a how-to on writing dialogue. – Photo by Susan Safford

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.

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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.