How to Write Riveting, Mundane Dialogue

2 Jun
Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce was an Editor's Choice at The New York Times.

Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce was an Editor’s Choice at The New York Times.

One of the drawbacks of the “raise the stakes” and “put a gun on the wall” comments in workshop is that writers begin to make every moment in a story or novel the equivalent of a gunshot. This is especially true of dialogue. It’s either needlessly mundane (“Hi,” I said. “Hey,” she replied) or it’s trying too hard to advance the plot with a forced argument. The sweet spot for dialogue has a foot in both camps: mundane and realistic and intense.

One of the best writers of dialogue that I’ve read recently is Merritt Tierce. Her novel Love Me Back is astoundingly good, and it contains dialogue that pulses with energy (to use some good book-jacket language) despite being about the most mundane topics. If you read nothing else this week, read this excerpt from Love Me Back.

How the Novel Works

The novel begins with a young woman interviewing for a job as a restaurant server. She’s immediately hired and told that she can start working immediately. Another server gives her a tour of the restaurant—he’s a Desert Storm veteran, and he immediately gives her the once over. The following excerpt is from his guided tour of the restaurant:

He takes a clear plastic cup from a stack by the soda machine and plunges it into the ice. Plastic for us, glass for them, he says. Always use the ice scoop. Georgie sees you doing this you’ll get yelled at. It’s unsanitary. Plus if you break a glass in the ice we have to burn it. Where is the ice scoop? I ask. Fuck if I know, he says. He fills his cup with Mountain Dew and takes a straw wrapped in paper from a cardboard box on the stainless-steel shelf above the soda machine. He tears the paper about an inch from the top of the straw, throwing away the long part and leaving the short part on like a cap. He stabs the straw into the cup. This is how you serve a soda, he says. Make sure it’s full. Fuckers drink it like it’s fucking crack. Put a straw in it. Leave the top on the straw so they know you didn’t put your nasty paws all over where their mouth goes. Always have extra straws in your apron because some lazy asshole in the section next to you won’t give his people straws, and when you walk by they’ll ask you for one, and if you don’t have one you gotta find dipshit or get it yourself. He takes the paper cap off the straw and flicks it into the trash. The fizzing head on the soda has settled so he tops it off and then takes a big suck. I recommend a straw for your personal consumption as well, he says. Never put your mouth on anything in a restaurant if you can help it. Shit doesn’t get clean. Ever.

In terms of plot, this scene does very little. A guy is simply talking about how to scoop ice and deliver drinks to customers—as mundane a task as there is. And yet the dialogue is charged. So, how does Tierce pull it off?

  • Use contradictory dialogue. The server gives the rules for scooping ice, but when asked where the ice scoop is, he says, “Fuck if I know.” The dialogue also contradicts his actions. Rather than scooping the ice the correct way, he scoops it out with his cup. These contradictions create tension; anytime someone breaks a rule, tension is created. It’s even better when the break is intentional.
  • Connect detail with attitude. A basic detail (He tears the paper about an inch from the top of the straw, throwing away the long part and leaving the short part on like a cap) is followed up with a comment that shows the speaker’s attitude toward that detail (This is how you serve a soda, he says. Make sure it’s full. Fuckers drink it like it’s fucking crack.) If a mundane detail is viewed as mundane, then it’s not worth mentioning in the story. But if a character feels strongly about the detail, then it’s not mundane anymore. In short, the dialogue is building the relationship between the characters and their world.
  • Mix diction and tone. Think about dialogue as a performance, which it often is, at least in moments of tension. When people perform, we tend to modulate our voice and vocabulary to get and maintain our audience’s attention. This is exactly what the server does. He uses formal diction and phrasings (I recommend a straw for your personal consumption as well) as well as less formal diction and phrasings (Shit doesn’t get clean. Ever.). Most importantly, he does this in the same breath.
  • Create ulterior motives. If you read the entire novel excerpt, you’ll see that the server is hitting on the narrator, and this sexual tension informs a lot of his actions and dialogue. As a rule, it’s a good idea to have more than one thing going on in any scene. So, in this case, the server is giving a tour of the restaurant and hitting on the narrator. The simultaneity of these actions helps give the dialogue tension.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write riveting, mundane dialogue using Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce as a model:

  1. Give the scene simultaneity. Basically, give at least one of the characters multiple intentions for the dialogue. Think about the character’s deeper aims for a scene. There’s the surface thing the character is doing (talking to a boss, a kid, a spouse, a friend) and there’s the thing he or she is thinking about because it feels pressing (a problem, a relationship). When a character’s mind is in two places at once, the dialogue will tend to reflect this.
  2. Use contradictory language. This can be intentional or through an unintentional lapse. So, if a character’s mind is elsewhere, he could say something and, without thinking, do exactly the opposite. Or he could say something that clearly doesn’t apply to the situation. An intentional contradiction suggests that the character doesn’t care or is feeling antagonistic. So, think about what lapse your character might make or how your character might choose to willfully disregard a rule. Make the contradiction something basic.
  3. Connect detail with attitude. You’ve already set the stage for this with the contradiction. If your character makes a lapse and is called out for it, how does the character react? With embarrassment? Anger? Surprise? If the character willfully contradicts herself, how does that antagonism play out with other details?
  4. Mix diction and tone. When would the character try to speak formally (with fancy talk)? When would the character be crude or blunt? Force yourself to use both registers in a piece of dialogue. In playing with the tone, you may discover something about the character’s intentions.

Good luck and have fun.

2 Responses to “How to Write Riveting, Mundane Dialogue”

  1. comfyreading June 6, 2015 at 8:02 p06 #

    This is some fantastic advice, thank you so much for taking the time to write this!

  2. michaelnoll1 June 6, 2015 at 8:02 p06 #

    Glad you found it helpful. Thanks for your note.

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