Dialogue and Point of View Tricks from Garth Nix's Sabriel

I recently read Sabriel by Garth Nix. It was a fun epic fantasy, and I picked up a few tricks that might come in useful for the old writer’s toolbox.

Spoiler warning: The first tip is not a spoiler, the second tip is a slight spoiler, and the third tip reveals a lot.

1. Interruptions are a great way to add life to dialogue.

Here’s a scene where Sabriel goes to her father’s house and encounters an enchanted servant (a “sending”) intent on giving her a bath.

Sabriel shrieked, but, again before she could do anything else, the sending had put back the basin, turned the wheel for more hot water, and was soaping her down, paying particular attention to her head, as if it wanted to get soap in Sabriel’s eyes, or suspected an infestation of nits . . . .

“How do I stop it?” she spluttered to Moggot, as still more water cascaded over her head …

“You can’t,” replied Mogget, who seemed quite amused by the spectacle. “This one’s particularly recalcitrant.”

“What do you… ow! .. . stop that! What do you mean, this one?”

I love the way that last line of dialogue conjures up an image of the scenario.

2. Transition between points of view by giving two versions of the same event.

At one point, Sabriel rescues a man who had been transformed into a statue. We're in her point of view when she breaks the spell. The next chapter retells the transformation from the man’s point of view as he comes out of his enchanted state. It’s a smooth transition into this new character’s head that doesn’t lose the reader. If you want more ideas on transitioning between points of view, check out this post.

3. Use of sayings/proverbs for emotional impact. 

Sabriel introduces a proverb at the beginning: “Does the walker choose the path, or the path the walker?” Near the end of the book, a character makes a decision to sacrifice his life. When the others object, the character justifies the choice by saying “Does the walker choose the path, or the path the walker?” The saying lends strength to the dialogue at that crucial moment.

Have you used any of these tricks in your writing before?


  1. Those were all great examples. I haven't read Sabriel in years, but now I want to reread it. Thanks for pointing out these useful tools.

  2. I've never read Nix and need to. I know (hanging head in shame)...

    Great examples & post!

  3. 1) I think I'm the king of em-dashes and ellipses. I think it's because IRL I interrupt people a lot so my characters tend to do that too.
    2) In my revision, I've played a couple times now where one character starts a scene, then another character takes the POV and retells part of the scene then goes off on their own. The problem is that I feel I'm wasting word count repeating essentially the same scene.
    3) I'm also playing with this in my revision, but more as premonitions than sayings.

  4. I read Sabriel a few years back and really enjoyed it - I'll have to reread it with a writer's eye someday soon.

  5. The dialogue example is a great reminder how little we need to dress up a conversation when the words themselves can pull the weight of it. I love a good, stripped section of dialogue now and then, when we can tell who's talking and what's happening without being told each time.

    As for number three, I think it's a good example of the power of repetition. In this case it creates symmetry, which lends resonance to the story. I remember Neil Gaiman did similar in Neverwhere with the opening epigraph, revisited nearer the end. I've also seen authors make good use of it with lines of poetry and the like, building each time to deepen the meaning and impact. I'm working with the same in my WIP, actually, drawing on a section of lyrics until they grow from just a tidbit about the world to a strong (but hopefully subtle) connection to the protagonist's path.

  6. Oh, I think I'm going to use interruptions in my, uh... dialogue from now on to, y'know, create a mood. Thanks!

    (Love your "learning from Book X" posts, btw.)

  7. Nice post. I have this book on my shelf, and haven't yet read it. I think I will do that right away. As for using the tricks, I did pluck my stories title CHALK HOUSES from a line of narration in my novel. I think it makes both the title and the narration more poignant.

  8. Yes, the interruption works well here. I've read others that didn't do any favours to the overall showing of the action.
    I love the use of proverbs at number three. I write mainly non-fiction (apart from when I'm writing short stories) but I do like to learn more about the tools fiction writers use. They can be very handy in non-fiction.

  9. I put flashbacks in the first part of a chapter and sometimes they are from the other character's point of view. Lets the reader see how others view the main character. I like the proverbs idea for emotional impact.

  10. Dialogue also has kick when one speaker had more power over the other