“Wolf Hall” and why quotation marks scare the hell out of me

It’s that time again.

The Dialogue Demon has reappeared and everything has gone to pot. I am stuttering, sputtering and when my writing comes out on the page it looks like a couple of store mannequins having a stunted conversation which has about as much depth as a puddle of piss left by a miniature Chihuahua as opposed to the effect that I am trying to achieve (see below).

elephant peeing

What my dialogue should look like as opposed to the chihuahua puddle it is…

Writing dialogue frightens the hell out of me.

I have nightmares about it, I really do. I feel a sweaty-palmed nervousness when I reach the point where I have to write a conversation between characters and quotation marks (QMs) are my nemesis. My brain freezes when I look at them on the keyboard and what ensues is a lifeless, soulless “noise” of a conversation. My characters talk, but they don’t say anything. They drone on, and my fingers fail at breathing life into the lifeless – there is no mirth in their laughter, no wit in their senseless words, no emotion in their banter.

Here’s how my nightmares started: I began rewriting my book last week. “Why you idiot I hear some of you ask, was it crap, was it, was it?” says the little devil’s voice in my head. Yes and no is the answer. I finished it in April and left it for the requisite three months (that’s what they all say right?) which turned into six months as I thought I would let it mature; who was I kidding? When I revisited it, hoping to read a masterpiece, I found what a famous writer once said about first drafts:  “it looked like notes to myself.”

Ninety thousand words and several hundred pages later and all I have is a pile of notes; amateur, often childish, with flashes, albeit few and very far between, of brilliance. So I began again, right from the beginning. I plotted in more detail, I précised every chapter from beginning to end. I rearranged things, made more detailed character outlines and even downloaded a trial version of Scrivener (if anybody uses it, please tell me if I should bother with the learning curve or just stick to my cork board and Moleskine). This time it is looking a lot better, I have to say. More experimental, less funny, more dark humour – an altogether more mature version of my first “book”.

Oliver Gray, whose Blog, Literature and Libation is one of my favourites, wrote in this blog post something along these lines: that we need to practice our craft for ten thousand hours and write five million words before we get good, or at least mildly good, at what we do. Practice makes perfect my granny used to say and how right she was. Oliver, you and granny are right as rain – geniuses, but I digress.

Cover of "Wolf Hall"

Cover of Wolf Hall

So, I have reached the first meaningful conversation in my book and in doing so have no nails left to bite. I tried the Hilary Mantel in Wolf Hall (Booker Prize Winner 2009 and rightly so!) kind of dialogue and I loved it. This is an example of how she writes some of her dialogue:

Yes, he says, vigorously nodding, making his nose drop gouts of blood: yes, he indicates himself, as if to say, Walter was here. Kat calls for a basin, for water, for water in a basin, for a cloth, for the devil to rise up, right now, and take away Walter his servant.

This is great dialogue, in my opinion, and what makes it greater for me is that the dreaded quotation marks are non-existent. Okay, I know that sounds trite and lazy of me to choose it just because of the lack of QMs – but it is exactly that which makes it all the more flowing. Though that’s not all – I love the movement of the conversation, I love the amalgamation of the spoken and the thought, as if the writer is saying that there needs to be thought to explain words. Now don’t all of you go thinking that I am stating the obvious, which I am, think about what I mean: how many times do we think it and then translate that into words but the words sometimes fail the thoughts, the sentiments?

And so we go back to the wisest Granny in the world – “Think before you speak.” I am sure we have all heard grannies and other wiser, older people say something similar to us in our lives but how many times have we actually heeded their advice? I know I forgot it as soon as she said it and it lay forgotten for many, many years, even a decade or so, and then resurfaced when I had made a complete cock-up of something and suddenly the light bulb that was partially screwed in by said Granny got fully screwed in and I started thinking.

So, with this in mind, I have started recording my conversations, writing them down, as best I can remember them as that is another piece of advice I gleaned from a writer friend. How do I talk, how do others talk, what do we say to each other? It was a complete disaster; I mean a disaster of Keystone Cop-ish proportions. We all talk weirdly, well at least I do, and my friends are not much better. Take a conversation I had the other day with a friend, sitting in a café, shooting the breeze (note the lack of QMs and the change of name to protect etc.):

Bob:    You have to read this mate…

Me:     God please don’t tell me you are going to make me read some horseshit, conspiracy theory bollocks again.

Bob:    No you idiot! This, Amin Maalouf’s Leo the African.

Me:     Who the fuck is Leo the African a big cat in the zoo?

Bob:    God, you are a twat. You don’t know who Amin Maalouf is?

Me:     Oh! No. Should I?

Bob:    He only went and won the Prix de Goncourt.

Me:     Isn’t that the French literary prize?

Bob:    Hallelujah, there is a light on inside.

Me:     Light? There is a fucking solar flare going on in here mate.

Bob:    Someone’s full of themselves today. Got laid?

Me:     Yup, you should try it.

Bob:    Fuck off!

Me:     Give me the book…idiot.

Bob:    It’s bloody great! Makes me want to go and visit the Alhambra again. Have you been there?

Me:     Yeah, Dad took me there when I was a child.


Bob:    Fancy another beer?

Me:     Does a bear shit in the woods?

And it went on like this for three hours! Mad right; Completely crazy, yes? I agree. Do other people talk like this or is it just me and Bob? Anyway, that’s how I talk to Bob and how he talks back. How the hell am I going to translate that into talking like real people? I mean we are real people. How am I going to have a proper conversation with proper quotation marks when I can’t do it in my own life. Now, I bet you think I am jesting so I will delve deeper into the “recorded conversation” part of the old grey cells and subject you to another conversation while on the tram heading home after a dinner party and you won’t believe your eyes:

Me:                 So, how are you really Madeleine ?

Madeleine:     I am well darling, how are you?

Me:                 Oh, you know, not bad, writing and getting stuck with things again.

Madeleine:     I thought you had finished your book?

Me:                 Well I have…

Madeleine:     Then what do you mean?

Me:                 Its crap.

Madeleine:     What?

Me:                 Crap.

Madeleine:     Why, didn’t the editor read it – what did he say?

Me:                 She. She said its crap.

Madeleine:     Oh my poor darling…

Me:                 It’s okay, I just wasted six months of my life writing crap, shit happens, a lot of it – shit I mean.

Madeleine:     What’s wrong with it?

Me:                 Well, she said I write crap. The story is good but she said she fell asleep reading it.


Madeleine:     This is my stop; shall we go to my place?

Me:                 Sure.

See what I mean? It just doesn’t happen in my life. Maybe I am destined to have shallow conversations, or maybe they just get deeper with alcohol. BY the way, have you tried that? By that I mean remembering how deep and meaningful the last conversation you had when you were drunk. At least that’s what one remembers the next day. In reality, those are just the weirdest:

Bob:    My friend… you are the bessht friend in the world and I mean that from the bottom of my fart.

Me:     Yesshh, thanks Bob. I love you mate.

Bob:    You know… we should write a book togesher.

Me:     As long as you type it. What are we going to write about? I think it should be a romantic love story based in the future, like Wesshtworld with Yul Brynner.

Bob:    Yessssss, Like Jesse James and Yoda will be the Massshter teaching all the gunslingers.

Me:     Bob, we need to plot this out.

Bob:    Here mate, use this tissue.

A nose is blown on the tissue

Bob:    You idiot, I gave that to you to write the blimmin plot on!

Me:     What?

Bob:    The book?

Me:     What book?

Bob:    Jesse James and Yoda and Yul Brynner…


Westworld starring Yul Brynner

And you can see how that all continues. Writing dialogue just doesn’t get any easier for me… time for a drink.



  1. Great post! I think I’m at the point where I write crap dialogue and don’t realise it yet. I don’t have a problem with QM’s though. Hilary Mantel might have won the Booker prize but the piece you quoted didn’t do it for me. Not that I know what I’m talking about but if had to put the QMs around the spoken words they would only go around the two instances of “yes”. “Walter was here” is a thought and needs no quotes. The last sentence TELLS us what Kat spoke about and doesn’t need quotes. It still works but makes it feel a bit distant for me, as if I’m a peeping tom and perhaps shouldn’t be observing the scene. Quoted dialogue brings me right in there, invited.

    As for Scrivener, I use it and find it a great tool. You can work with as large or small a part of the document as you like. The handling of the story meta data is brilliant. You can stick notes, keywords, references, POV’s etc on each scene your write. Scene documents can be put in folders, you can select whether or not to include parts in the final compiled version, you can snapshot your work. You can even generate a .mobi file to put on your Kindle. This list goes on. Well worth it. You will never want to go back to a monolithic word doc once you’ve tried it. 🙂


    1. Thanks Richard! Okay, a bit of honesty here. It’s 4 am, or so, and I am typing this on a smart phone so bear with me please and forgive the odd typo. The reason that piece is great is that, for me, I can “hear” her calling for that basin, and then calling again for water in the basin and cursing Walter under her breath, a bit like a charlady muttering as she scrubs. I like the peeping Tom bit because it’s exactly as you say, I heard it but I shouldn’t have. More subtle than quoted, making me feel a part of the scene without it being a conversation that I am watching and listening to, if you get what I mean.

      You have convinced me – I think tomorrow, once the bleariness abates, I will get on that and try working it out. Lastly, thank you again for taking the time out to comment and that too a meaningful one! 😉


      1. 4 AM! What madness is this? 😉

        Ah, that makes sense. Reading that paragraph out of context makes for easy misinterpretations but if the peeping tom feeling was intended, then that is very well done. I should have known, given the award.

        I use the Linux version of Scrivener which is not officially supported. It is based on the Windows release which I believe is slightly behind the Mac version in terms of new features. There are some really good tutotials out there on blogs and Youtube etc. My biggest fear before using it was of lock-in. If I choose to stop using it in the future can I still export my work to Word or whatever? Answer is yes. In fact it’s recommended to export to Word anyway to deliver the completed manuscript.

        Your welome! 🙂


  2. I just bought Scrivener a month ago for my manuscript. It takes some time to learn completely, but I believe it will be worth it. The basis getting off the ground is quite good, with the built in templates for fiction/non-fiction, screen play and even thesis/research papers. They also have a built in tutorial feature, which walks you through step by step and is interactive to explain the main features. Besides office, this really is one of the best writers tools I think, and I’ve searched around. Fyi, you should be able to export, and you can always choose to save it to a word doc, or pdf. even. I have the full (windows 8) version so it might be different from trial. 🙂


    1. Hi, thanks for the input! I think I am gravitating towards it. The learning curve is the only hurdle but I think once I am used to it then it will make life easier. Plus, so many people like yourself are recommending it so there must be something in it. Thanks for the like too! 🙂


  3. Best of luck! I’ve never completely rewritten a first draft–only heavily, heavily edited the draft–but I know lots of writers who routinely adopt that strategy and find great success with it. 🙂


    1. Well I went through the heavy, merciless editing phase and then left it. Then revisited it and the writing seemed puerile so I thought, well why not just write it again along exactly the same plotlines… A bit sisyphusian, I know but one has to keep rolling and rolling up that hill! 🙂


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