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How to Set Up Dialogue with Declarative Statements

28 Jun
Robert Boswell's story, "The House on Bony Lake," appeared in the October 2014 issue of Harper's Magazine.

Robert Boswell’s story, “The House on Bony Lake,” appeared in the October 2014 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

The best writers have a way of making their prose seem light and effortless. It’s the effect we’re all seeking because in our minds, the story races along, but on the page, it too often plods along, one thing after another. The place where that slow, predictable, stuck feeling tends to reveal itself the clearest in our drafts is in dialogue. Conversely, in a great piece of writing, the dialogue snaps.

A great example of light and fast dialogue and prose can be found in Robert Boswell’s story, “The House on Bony Lake.” It was published in Harper’s Magazine, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

A passage early in the story begins like this: “Lew’s All Nite was a dark tavern attractive to serious drinkers.” The paragraph ends with “The All Nite was not a place for optimists.”

Now, look at the dialogue that follows:

“Hey, genius,” a regular called, a woman in her late thirties named Kay Timmons, a gin drinker, who liked to talk, who needed his attention, who would tip him a twenty on a thirty-dollar tab. “If you’re so smart, why’s my glass empty?”

Paul responded immediately, “Nobody thinks I’m smart but you.”

“I’m putting all my eggs in that basket,” Kay told him. “Be kind to my eggs.”

The dialogue (why’s my glass empty, nobody thinks I’m smart but you, all my eggs in that basket) illustrates the claims made in the declarative statements at the beginning of the passage (serious drinkers, not a place for optimists).

The same thing happens throughout the passage. Here is another example of declarative statements:

Melinda wore the shortest skirts of any waitress. The men in All Nite studied her hungrily. From the first hour of her first shift Paul had the feeling they would wind up in bed together.

Of course, they have sex, and afterward “He remembered thinking that she’d cast a longing look at her crossword.” He notices a rectangle-shaped tattoo, and here is the dialogue that follows:

“It’s Colorado,” she said, “my home state.”

“You’re from Ohio.”

“It’s a book, then.”

“It’s not a book.”

“It might be a book. I read.”

“Looks more like a television.”

“All right, then,” she’d said. “Are we done?”

Again, the dialogue illustrates what we can infer from what we’ve already been told: she’s something less than smitten with him.

Finally, in the same passage, we learn the history of the building where Lew’s All Night is located. At one point, it housed “a storefront church — the Holy Committee of Righteous Christ — whose floppy-haired minister plastered flyers of his face all over town, declaring himself god’s delivery system. He played electric flute and drum machine during hymns. Paul met him once, in a bar on the north end of the lake.”

At this point, it’s interesting to consider what dialogue might follow. How will it confirm what we already know? There are a few possibilities. This is the path it takes:

“You recognize me, don’t you?” the preacher asked as he slid a creased five into the tight filament of a stripper’s thong. “You’ve seen my posters,” he insisted.

It’s as if the story is saying to the reader, you just met the preacher and you’re suspicious of him–and, turns out, your suspicions are correct.

What Boswell has done is write a passage that contains dialogue from four different characters who aren’t talking together. It leaps from one thing to another so smoothly that it’s possible to read the passage without noticing how much time and space it covers. This may sound complicated, but it’s similar to how many of us talk. We make declarative statements all the time, followed by a piece of evidence to substantiate our claim. This is especially true of the preachers in our lives. I’m willing to bet that a lot of people have heard someone talk about So-and-so from the Such-and-such church and then add, “And do you know where I saw him? In a ____, with a ___.” The blanks are not positive, and we knew that before they even arrived in the conversation.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s use declarative statements to set up dialogue, using Robert Boswell’s story, “The House on Bony Lake,” as a model:

  1. Set your scene in a particular place with particular individuals. Stories and novels can, of course, make general statements (Tolstoy made a lot of hay with his statement about happy and unhappy families in Anna Karenina), but it’s easier to work with specific details. Where is this passage from your story/novel taking place or referring to?
  2. Choose a particular voice. This might mean that the statement will come from a character (who may or may not be the narrator) or the narrator or some other voice you’ve concocted. It doesn’t matter who you pick, but you must pick. The voice needs attitude. When Boswell’s story states, “It was not a place for optimists,” that’s not a neutral statement. It has attitude. There are, probably, characters who would disagree with that assessment of the bar. What is your voice’s attitude on the subject you laid out in the first step?
  3. Make a statement. Let the voice you’ve chosen hold forth. Imagine that the voice is being interviewed by Terry Gross, host of the NPR show “Fresh Air.” She’s asking your voice about the places and people in its life. What does it have to say now that it’s suddenly an expert?
  4. Illustrate the statement with dialogue. You can use the scaffolding of real-life conversations to comment on the people and places within the statement: “And you know what he/she said then?” or “You’ll never guess what So-and-so did the other day” or “Case in point: ____.” You’ll likely end up cutting this scaffolding and moving directly from the statement to the dialogue.

We question dialogue when we don’t know where it’s going, when we have no sense that it knows where it’s going. So, give it a sense of direction: it’s moving toward the statement you’ve already given us. The goal is to make dialogue snap by divorcing it from plot and attaching it, instead, to statements about people and place. If you can do this once, you can do it again and again, often with different subjects within the same passage.

Good luck.

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