What An Old Novel Taught Me About Writing Thrilling Dialogue

A while before I wrote this article, I randomly ended up reading the first five chapters of an out-of-copyright novel from 1907/1908 called “The Iron Heel” By Jack London after seeing it mentioned in an online comment and then reading that it was an early dystopian novel.

Although I could probably talk about the novel’s political arguments, or how it breaks a lot of the rules of writing good fiction (but is still very readable), or how the third chapter uses elements from the horror, detective and romance genres to make a political point, I thought that I’d talk about how the story handles dialogue.

Because, despite the story’s old-fashioned narration and lecturing tone, the dialogue-based scenes are refreshingly different to pretty much anything else that I’ve read.

For example, here’s an extract from the first chapter: ‘His smashing, sledge-hammer manner of attack invariably made them forget themselves. And they were forgetting themselves now. Bishop Morehouse was leaning forward and listening intently. Exasperation and anger were flushing the face of Dr. Hammerfield.

This isn’t a description of a fist-fight or a crime. It is a description of a political activist having a polite discussion about metaphysics and science with a bishop and a professor. It is a completely non-violent scene. Yet, it is written like something from a thriller, crime and/or horror novel.

Even though the dialogue in this chapter is sometimes turgid, didactic and ultra-formal (eg: ‘The metaphysician reasons deductively out of his own subjectivity. The scientist reasons inductively from the facts of experience.’) and the argument is presented as being very one-sided, none of this matters because of the descriptions surrounding the dialogue. They make you want to read more.

Here’s another example from chapter one: ‘Ernest ignored the thrust. It was always his way to turn the point back upon an opponent, and he did it now, with a beaming brotherliness of face and utterance.‘ This could almost be a description of an old-fashioned duel between two knights, yet it is a description of two people talking peacefully.

And then there’s this description from later in the chapter: ‘I can hear him now, with that war-note in his voice, flaying them with his facts, each fact a lash that stung and stung again. And he was merciless. He took no quarter,* and gave none. I can never forget the flaying he gave them at the end‘.

This reads like something from a horror novel, or a novel about pirates or maybe a grisly scene from “Game Of Thrones”. Yet, again, it is a description of a few people sitting in a room and having a peaceful discussion about metaphysics and science. A discussion which, if it was written slightly differently, would be the most boring thing in the world.

So, the main lesson in all of this is that even the most boring dialogue can be made thrillingly readable if you pay careful attention to the descriptions surrounding the dialogue.

If you describe the effects of the dialogue in a dramatic way (or the events surrounding the dialogue) and you are willing to borrow techniques from other genres, then you can turn even the most dull dialogue into something that is as grippingly page-turning as a thrilling car chase or a scene from a horror novel.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂