Tales of my Guru

Here is the very first Guru column from Whitbread-winning author Hugh Scott, which appeared in Writers' Forum in September 2007. You can receive more of the Guru's wisdom each month in the magazine and through his exclusive new advisory service


I stepped into an alley in Hyderabad, the hairs on my neck warning me of a fore-ordained encounter with He Whom I Knew Not. Being an amateur writer I was intent, always, on scenting ideas or indeed characters like the one crouching beside a brazier, his eyes shaded under an orange hood and his hand offering me roasted chestnuts.

He made no mention of payment so, being a Scotsman and therefore encouraged, I approached and ate, perching myself on a stool, and looking into the man’s eyes.

‘Dialogue,’ he said in perfect English, ‘is not conversation.’



‘Have we met?’ I asked cautiously.

‘Dialogue,’ he insisted, ‘is not conversation.’ And his eyes touched mine with a kindliness I had not seen since my mother told me I was adopted.

‘Look at this painting,’ he murmured, producing a country scene by John Constable.

‘I don’t have much money…’

‘This painting looks like your English countryside.’

‘Suffolk,’ I told him.

‘It is nothing like Suffolk,’ he adjured me. Before I could disagree, he continued, ‘Is it the same size?’


‘Is it the same size as Suffolk?’

‘It’s a bit smaller,’ I admitted, wondering if his kindly gaze belied a heart of lunacy.

‘Does it smell like a real landscape?’

‘I don’t suppose so.’ Even this alleyway didn’t smell like a real landscape. It smelt more like…



‘Look at the size of the dogs in the foreground. Compare them with the distant cottage.’

I looked. I compared. I shrugged. My companion produced a ruler. He measured one of the dogs. ‘Three centimetres from nose to rump.’

‘We agreed,’ I reminded him, ‘that the painting is smaller than the real landscape.’

He measured the cottage in the distance. ‘One centimetre only,’ he announced quietly. ‘Considerably smaller than the dog?’ He tilted his head, his eyes holding my gaze like two drills trying to penetrate concrete.

I refrained from mentioning perspective, and considered. Then: ‘A real dog,’ I cried brilliantly, ‘is smaller than a cottage whether the cottage is far away or not!’

The eyes under the hood crinkled merrily. ‘So the painting is different from reality. And has it the same colours as a real landscape? No,’ he said without waiting for my response, ‘because the real colours are always changing due to fluctuating light, incipient decay and so on. Is there real sunlight and shade in the painting? No, it is merely light and dark paint. Does anything in the painting move? Does the painting have depth that we can walk into…?’

I discovered I had eaten all the chestnuts.

‘This painting,’ he said obnixely, ‘is not a real landscape.’

I rose, avoiding mentioning the chestnuts in case he demanded payment. He laid his hand on my arm.

‘Dialogue,’ he persisted, ‘is not conversation.’

I sat down. Anything to do with writing was worth the price of a bag of chestnuts.

‘Dialogue is silent,’ said the man. ‘It is ink marks on a page. It has no sound but the sound the reader imagines. Without sound, the written word loses emphasis and therefore some of its meaning. So you must write sentences which cannot be misinterpreted. Generally, we do that without thinking. But look at this sentence.’ And he handed me a scrap of paper with a sentence written on it.

My father gave me five pounds.

He then handed me a pencil. ‘Underline any word you like.’ I did so, and showed him.

My father gave me five pounds.

He handed me several scraps of paper, each with the same sentence on it, but with a different word underlined.

My father gave me five pounds.

Some had two words underlined.

My father gave me five pounds.

‘This sentence,’ I said cleverly, ‘would be useless in a story. It depends on sound for its meaning!’

‘And dialogue is silent.’

‘Ink marks on a page,’ I agreed.

‘And dialogue also is part of a story, while conversation is not. Conversation is people vocalising their thoughts. Very often conversation is boring. It contains repetition that is no use when written down. It really does contain repetition. Things are repeated in conversation. They are said over and over.

‘And sometimes conversation is not rendered in sentences. Words are squashed together like mushy peas. Sentences fade –

‘Dialogue is accompanied by gestures and expressions which cannot be properly conveyed in writing. People mishear conversation. All these things are not part of a story. Your dialogue,’ said He Whom I Knew Not, ‘must be part of the story you are writing, or else why include it?

‘Look again at the painting. Imagine that you were sitting in the Suffolk countryside beside John Constable as he created this masterpiece. Imagine that he suddenly pulled a leaf from one of these trees and stuck it on to the painting.’

I moved uncomfortably on the stool.

‘You would protest. “You have spoiled your painting!” you would cry. “You cannot put a leaf on to your paint!” Yes?’


‘Because the real leaf does not belong. It is real, and the painting is a work of art. Conversation is real, and your dialogue is a work of art.

‘Now, do not misunderstand. I am not saying that your dialogue cannot contain words and phrases that people actually use, but they must be relevant to your story.

‘The painter – despite all the differences between his painting and reality – is, in fact, referring to reality in order to create his picture. He is looking at the relationships between real colours; between real light and dark, between real shapes, and he is translating them into a different medium, which is paint.

‘And this is what you must do, my young friend. Translate conversation into another medium – the medium of the written word. Translate it, by making it relevant to your story. Then it is dialogue.

‘If you hear a bully talking, try to hear the aggressive rhythms and wide-mouthed sounds. Then use these rhythms and sounds for the bully in your story – but not his exact words, because they will be real, and like the leaf from the tree, they will not fit your plot. Two rupees, please, for the chestnuts.’

And well worth it, I thought.

Use it or Lose it

This month’s treasure dredged from the depths of the English language is ‘obnixely’. It is an adverb and it means firmly or resolutely. Only one writer these days uses obnixely, and modesty forbids my telling you that it’s me. Here are examples of its use.

I tell you obnixely to refrain from these actions.

His glance rested obnixely on me with such power that I etc.

Remember, though, that nobody knows what it means; so employ it in such a way that its meaning is obvious, or for comic effect. It’s a great little word, filling the mouth perfectly and exercising the face.

© 2007/2010 Hugh Scott/Writers' Forum


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