In a new craft series by assistant editor Jen Dupree, we’ll explore ways to move forward in our works-in-progress, particularly those that seem to be stuck in the mud, the ones we don’t know what to do with. Today, we’re looking at sprucing up dialogue and cutting back on conversations that aren’t doing much.
As an assistant editor here at TMR, I’m reading a fair number of submissions with dialogue that’s too telling or clunky or expected or dialogue that just doesn’t sound like anything anyone would ever say. It’s often a major reason for a story or essay to get a downvote from me because if I don’t believe in what the characters say, I have a hard time believing in the story.
Done well, dialogue can create a sense of the characters, the mood of the story, and a level of anxiety over what’s not being said or what’s being misunderstood.
Let’s start with what not to do.
Novelist Emily Henry, in an episode of The Shit No One Tells You About Writing, says that writers should avoid having characters “passing the baton back and forth.” Meaning you shouldn’t have a character ask a question and another character answer in an entirely expected way:
Character 1: “How are you?”
Character 2: “Not bad, you?”
Character 1: “Doing okay.”
Rather, answer in a way that’s unexpected, or perhaps allow the character not answer at all:
Character 1: “How are you?”
Character 2: “Did you see my shoes? I can’t find where I put my shoes.”
This somewhat off-center exchange makes the reader pay attention. It’s interesting. It tells us something about the characters (Character 2 is in no mood to talk about how she is and Character 1 can’t see that she’s in obvious disarray). The baton pass, on the other hand, is just filler. It doesn’t tell us anything about the characters other than that they’re having a perfectly fine day, which might be something the writer needs to know but isn’t something the reader wants to read.
So, if you aren’t writing baton-passing exchanges, what are you writing? How are your characters supposed to sound? What should they say?
In this Tin House Live recorded talk, Dorothy Allison, Allison encourages writers to listen to what people are saying (especially when they don’t know you’re listening), and then write it down. She suggests writers “listen to how people actually talk [but] don’t write how people actually talk because three quarters of what people say is filler.” And about swearing, she says, “People cuss in extreme circumstances…and shouldn’t stories be extreme circumstances?”
An extreme circumstance doesn’t have to be a car fire or earthquake or breakup. It can be a quiet story, but what happens to the character must feel extreme—to them and to the reader. You don’t have to have expletives in your writing, but you do have to let your characters get upset. You have to let them say mean things. And dumb things. And profound, kind, tender, ridiculous things. Real things, in other words.
Allison suggests allowing physical action to strengthen or subvert the dialogue. That means if a character says “I’m fine, not hot at all” and then wipes the sweat off his brow, we have a character who does one thing and says another and we want to know why. And when we do or feel one thing but say another, we have tension. Likewise, if our character picks up a handful of pennies and lets them run through her fingers like water and then shouts “We’re rich!” we believe she feels rich. The action reinforces the truth of what the character said.
Lastly, Allison points out that monologue can create character and is useful for that, but dialogue creates story because it’s oppositional. It creates conflict. It’s an exchange. This means that while we learn a lot about a character alone on the page while she’s thinking her thoughts, thoughts do not a story make. Interiority is important, and we can touch on that another time, but dialogue is what gets things moving on the page.
Brad Listi lands on similar advice in his Otherppl podcast with Mike DeCapite. DeCapite’s new novel takes place in a gym and so, naturally, he squirreled away a notebook in his gym locker and wrote down everything he could remember overhearing while he worked out. But that’s not what made the final cut. Rather, he combined and collapsed different conversations in order to get the best, most interesting bits.
DeCapite says what he’s striving for isn’t necessarily exactly what someone said, but rather the trueness of the feeling behind what they said. I was really intrigued by this idea of coming at dialogue over and over again to find the phrasing that rings emotionally true—true not just to the veracity of what’s being said, but true to how the person saying it feels. So, maybe your character doesn’t say, “I’m depressed” but rather, “I haven’t been able to muster the energy to put on pants for a week.” Dialogue that is specific, exact, and true.
How do we get the veracity of what’s being said? With close, attentive listening. Hrishikesh Hirway, creator of the podcast Song Exploder, says in his TED talk that “when someone tells you something, there can be all these layers, all this context that you’re missing…I had to listen for those moments, those clues where there was more to be discovered.” There is always more to what is being said than what is being said.
Listen to what’s said, what’s implied, and what isn’t said. Listen to pauses, hesitations, interruptions. Listen to background noise and bodily noises. Listen to inflection and inference. And then get it on the page as carefully crafted dialogue.
by Jen Dupree