How to Read a Novel: Week #3

Part three potted

Lesser Bohs coverSo ends week three of How to Read a Novel, the online course I’m taking courtesy of FutureLearn and the University of Edinburgh.

In this module we tackled the ways in which a character’s personality is revealed through dialogue, and the techniques used for presenting it on the page. We looked at excerpts from several titles but examined in more detail The Lesser Bohemians – the second novel by Irish author Eimear McBride – winner of The James Tait Black Prizes for fiction in 2016.

Here is a condensed record of my activities over the past week:

3.1 – 3.15 >> DIALOGUE >>

Introduction to dialogue: We watched a video in which Lead Educator, Dr Alex Lawrie, introduced some of the methods used for presenting dialogue. We considered the ways conversation is rendered in fictional narrative, and how much is revealed by what a character says and how they interact when speaking to each other. In addition to this we examined the effects of introducing dialect voices into a novel. Pertinent examples of conversation were provided, enabling us to consider its impact on plot and characterisation.

Reading between the lines: What does dialogue reveal to us about the characters? Dr Alex Lawrie explained in her video how careful reading of fictional conversations can reveal much about the characters involved. She also demonstrated that we may very well miss subtle moments of tension if we don’t follow some conversations carefully. Excerpts from two of Jane Austen’s novels were used to illustrate this point: namely Northanger Abbey and Emma.

Presenting a variety of perspectives: Once again we watched a video presented by Dr Alex Lawrie. In this she considered the effects of having several characters carry on a conversation without intervention from the narrator. Using the example of George Eliot’s 1861 novel Silas Marner: The Weaver of Raveloe, she gave thought to the likely impact of denying an authoritative commentary on events.

What’s your favourite example of dialogue? We were asked to think about what makes a piece of dialogue particularly amusing, dramatic or revealing, and to provide our own examples of memorable dialogue in fiction. I highlighted Irvine Welsh’s 1993 Edinburghian novel, Trainspotting. We were given the opportunity to share our thoughts in the discussion area.

Introduction to dialect: We looked at the effects of voice or discourse when characters are speaking in dialect, or non-standard English. The authors Irvine Welsh (yes, I got there before them) and James Kelman were used as examples of novelists whose characters speak in a raw and abrasive Scots dialect rendered phonetically. We discover this practice goes back at least to Sir Walter Scott in the early nineteenth century.

Varieties of speech: We were furnished with an excerpt from Sir Walter Scott’s 1818 novel The Heart of Midlothian, which emphasized how dialect can be a revolutionary gesture: clearing space for individuals to articulate themselves in their own linguistic register. Chris Guthrie, a character from Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s early 1930s trilogy, A Scots Quair was used to illustrate what can happen when there is no narrator to interpret or neutralise words.

The politics of dialect: We read an excerpt from the final novel in Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s trilogy, Grey Granite, before considering what impact these Scots voices had on us as readers. We could clearly see that the use of dialect was of immense importance in this example, because it carried with it values that were political (e.g. left wing, Scottish, working-class) and urged us to align ourselves with these principals.



Overview of The Lesser Bohemians: Eimear McBride’s novel is set in London between September 1994 and July 1995, and centres on the relationship between 18-year-old Eily, a first-year drama student from Ireland, and Stephen, a handsome actor, twenty years her senior. The narrative is told in the first person, through the mind of Eily, and while the novel is saturated in sex, on a thematic level it extends to wider issues of acceptance, trust and optimism.

Straightforward conversations: The focus in this section was on the way in which dialogue is rendered in the novel – which is very different from the conversations we examined earlier in this module. Each fresh speaker is given a new line, and the narrator steps in with “he said” or “she said” when it’s necessary to make it clear who is talking. We looked at a short example of dialogue between Eily and Stephen and saw that it was written as spoken, with the narrator largely absent. We also discovered there were no quotation marks anywhere in the novel.

Dialogue and descriptive commentary: We looked at an example of an exchange, which included thoughts and descriptive commentary, from the start of the novel, when Eily spots Stephen at the theatre and is horrified to realise he is coming over to talk to her. We discover the sentence structure in this passage (and McBride’s prose more generally) is rich in the variety of unconventional techniques it uses to present dialogue.

Conversations between several characters: We read a passage in which Eily and Stephen are in the pub, and Eily is becoming increasingly irritated by him looking at other women. She gets up to use the toilet but returns to find another woman in her seat. We see from this excerpt there is potential for confusion when more than two characters are involved in the conversation.

How much have you learnt about how dialogue works? Quiz time! To answer the questions, we referred back to ideas discussed this week.

Meet the author: We watched an interview with Eimear McBride in which she reflected on her experience of writing the novel. She talked about the importance of interiority (or the quality of being inward), and how she approaches dialogue, characterisation and setting. She also revealed that The Lesser Bohemians is the first book in a trilogy. We were later asked how important “realism” of dialogue was to us when reading a novel and were directed to an article McBride wrote for the TLS about the depiction of sex in literature. This prompted the question: do you think that there is a “politics” of writing about sex, in the same way that there is a “politics of dialect”.

Book club: We were asked for our opinions on The Lesser Bohemians, and how well we thought McBride’s distinctive style worked in the presentation of dialogue and character. Also, if anything had particularly struck us or whether we had read anything similar in the past.


From dialogue to setting: We reflected on all we had learned about the presentation of conversations in fictional narrative over the week.


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17 replies

  1. I remember having trouble with reading dialect in Kipling’s Captain’s Courageous- the first part of the book is heavy in its usage, latter it changes or at least seems to reduce. But it did make me wonder how much is too much- there has obviously to be enough to give it authenticity but if one is too authentic, wouldn’t we be excluding readers – and losing the point of writing the book (it is being written to be read after all)

    • I haven’t read Kipling’s Captain Courageous, but have certainly had similar issues with other novels. I tend to think some authors have an aptitude for writing in dialect and know just how far to go without alienating their readers. Others, unfortunately, go a bit over the top and render their works almost unintelligible. It’s a fine line, and it takes a talented writer to pull it off.

      • It’s very much like a children’s version of The Sea Wolf if you’ve read that one- but of course with a different and somewhat exciting end.

        I’ve read a lot of Kipling (a library I used to go to at one point had almost all of his books and I worked my way through nearly all), and this was the only one where I had that problem- perhaps he simply went overboard in this one.

  2. This post echos my own English A level slightly; I remember when the teacher asked us a question about the ending of The Great Gatsby. (I won’t post the ending, to avoid spoilers.) I remember reading through the lines, and thinking an alternative about the lead character-everyone thought I was crackers! Excellent post; keeping reading through the lines.

  3. This course sounds better and better! Very much appreciating your precis of each week, Paula, and eager to give it a try for myself eventually!

  4. Wow, it’s so amazing that they have such a course out there! How do you feel now after taking these, and have they affected the way you read in any significant way? I might take something like this just for fun after I finish my degree, it sounds very interesting!

    • I really enjoyed taking this course, Dania. Two or three hours a week for four weeks isn’t a huge commitment, but it’s been great fun. I’ve learned a lot and loved doing so. I’ve also been introduced to four new (to me) authors and their excellent novel. Would highly recommend it!

  5. Sounds very promising, I’ve signed up to be notified when they re-open the course again. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Do you need to read the set books? That’s the thing that would make it hard for me – fitting in reading other books on top of what I have on my plate.

    I’ve just read a book by Stephen Orr. He does dialogue wonderfully.

    • No, there is absolutely no pressure to read complete novels, although it’s fun if you have time. All the texts required to complete the course are supplied online by The University of Edinburgh. I enjoyed reading from all four of the contemporary novels selected to highlight various aspects of the course. I would especially like to read Jo Baker’s ‘A Country Road, A Tree’ in its entirety.


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