Using Dialogue to Create Conflict

14 May
Rene S. Perez in The Acentos Review

“Lost Days” by Rene S. Perez II first appeared in The Acentos Review and is included in his debut collection, Along These Highways, which won the Alfredo Cisneros Del Moral Prize and was published as part of the Camino del Sol series by the University of Arizona Press.

If you close your eyes and listen to people—your family or friends—you’ll discover that they don’t all talk the same. They use different diction, different cliches, and sentences of different lengths. Yet in fiction, we too often write dialogue as if everyone talks the same.

Not Rene S. Pérez II. In his story, “Lost Days,” he creates characters with distinctive speaking styles, and those style become the center of the conflict. The story is a great example of how character, when fully realized, can drive plot. “Lost Days” is included in Pérez’s collection, Along These Highways, and was first published in The Acentos Review, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

Let’s take a look at a key paragraph from “Lost Days.” In it, you’ll see how Bobby talks differently than his mother and father and how the story comments on this style. Both are important in using character to create plot.

“I don’t mean to disparage the whole of Corpus as being ‘ghetto,’ because that connotes a certain socioeconomic status,” he said, trying to backpedal as delicately as he could out of a comment he’d made at the dinner table that offended Beto, her husband, his father. He had always spoken that way; Stanford didn’t do that to him. “It’s just that there’s a culture here which is such that one can’t be challenged or even stimulated intellectually. There’s no art, no progress toward it or high culture. It’s a city of… of… philistines.”

Bobby’s diction (disparage, connotes) and phrasing (which is such that) suggest not only that he is smart but that he’s trying to be smart, that he feels a need to prove his intelligence. His speaking pattern has a whiff of desperation, and so it’s no surprise that he ends up calling his hometown stupid and dull. In life, people generally say what they feel. It’s hard to maintain a true shellac over our inner selves. In fiction, you can use this tendency to create plot by having characters say what they think (in their unique voices) to the people most vulnerable to those opinions. Perez has established in one paragraph an entire family dynamic and conflict.

Perez turns this conflict into a narrative arc by focusing Bobby’s desperation on a single point: Starbucks. At first, he says, “I mean, this town doesn’t even have a Starbucks.” But later in the story, as his mom drives away from the town’s first Starbucks, he’ll say, “Starbucks is the Wal-Mart of coffee shops. I bet the opening was in the news and everything.”

In some ways, this is a story about that old saw, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” All it takes to make the story work is a few words from one character and a cup of coffee.

The Writing Exercise

This exercise is really more of a writing habit. The first part you may have heard before, but the second will likely be new to you.

  1. Begin writing down snippets of dialogue. The speakers can be anyone: people in line at the grocery store, customers at a coffee shop, drinkers at a bar, your kids or spouse or parents, your friends. Try to write down a few sentences verbatim. Don’t worry about capturing an entire conversation. The back-and-forth may sound amazing, but on paper, it will almost always last too long and wander from its point. It’s more important to capture the essence of how the person speaks.
  2. Try to impersonate those people. Say aloud what you have written as they said it. Imagine that you’re an actor on stage. You may find that in order to fully capture the voice, you must delete or add words or change their order. Remember: Dialogue needs to sound lifelike, not be lifelike. Once you’ve captured the person’s voice, write down the dialogue as you speak it. Add attributions (she said) or descriptions (she wiped her nose) to help provide the rhythm of the voice.

Have fun.

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