A few weeks back, I read Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None for a book club I attend via Skype. One thing that really stood out to me in our discussion was the odd nature of Christie’s dialogue cues. Another group member pointed out how over and over, whenever a character spoke, it was introduced by a clear identification of the person about to speak, and a clear description of how they were about to speak, followed by a colon:
I hardly noticed it at all while I was reading (I read the entire book in a single day so I could attend book club without spoiling the ending for myself), but once my friend pointed it out, it was glaringly obvious how heavily Christie used this technique. A technique that would never make it past an agent, much less an editor, nowadays. It goes against every piece of advice on writing dialogue I’ve ever heard. I’ve been taught over and over that adverbs should be shunned, that speakers seldom need to be identified, that you should never describe how a person says something if you can convey the intonation by the words themselves. This was the exact opposite of that.
And I didn’t even notice. On reflection, I even think it was a wonderful choice for this novel in particular, and now I’m rethinking the wisdom of modern minimalism in dialogue.
First, with so many characters in such a short novel (it’s a hefty number of pages, but the short paragraphs make it an airy piece) with so many moving parts, it’s really helpful to have clear markers of who is speaking and how they’re speaking. When so much is cryptic and hidden, there’s no need to add extra confusion through the style of writing also. I’m sure I would not have been able to read it so quickly if I had to – as I often do when I read too fast – go back and check who said what in a passage with multiple speakers. Not even once did I have a moment of “Oh wait, who went first?” as I usually do when I get caught up and start racing through the text.
Second, it’s an incredibly theatrical way of presenting the action. Another book club member brought up how this style makes it easy to “do the voices” as you read. You know whose voice it is, and what tenor it will take before you start to see the words. In a way, it lets the reader sit back and watch – and enjoy the show. And if you’ve read And Then There Were None, you’ll know just how well that fits the story.
Sometimes I forget that modern writing conventions are just that – conventions. Not laws, not hard and fast perfect duties to which I must, at all times, mold myself, but guidelines that will probably help get better control over my writing, but which still ought to be taken up purposively, and not merely followed to the letter for the sake of nothing. I’m still going to read about the art of writing and work on my craft according to these guidelines, but I won’t forget Agatha Christie and all of her adverbs.
Joelle said triumphantly: