Tag Archives: How to Write Dialogue

How to Make High Concept Stories Unpredictable

16 Jun
Dina Guidubaldi's story collection, How Gone We Got, fits neatly on any bookshelf containing George Saunders or Karen Russell.

Dina Guidubaldi’s story collection, How Gone We Got, fits neatly on any bookshelf containing George Saunders or Karen Russell.

It sometimes seems like the fabulists are taking over the literary world: George Saunders, Aimee Bender, Kelly Link, Karen Russell, Manuel Gonzales, and Amelia Gray, to name a few. When we talk about these writers’ stories, we tend to focus on the fantastic: on the slightly fantastic (something’s a bit amiss or weird) and incredibly fantastic (zombies at the workplace). But I wonder if that focus is misplaced. Maybe the fantastic elements of these stories simply reflect something about the culture and world they’re written within. From a craft and critical perspective, it might be better to focus on something else: many of these stories use high-concept story plots—plots that contain elements that make them easy to summarize, like, say, Vampires in the Lemon Grove.

Here’s one more writer to add to the fabulist canon: Dina Guidubaldi. Her collection How Gone We Got is as good as anything by the writers mentioned above, and her story “What I Wouldn’t Do” offers a great lesson in how to use a high concept plot and avoid the trap of it becoming predictable. You can read the story online at Superstition Review.

How the Story Works

When I use the term high concept, I’m not referring to any particular genre. The term simply means any story whose premise can distilled to a tagline that often serves as a title: CivilWarLand in Bad DeclineThe Faery HandbagJurassic Park, or One Hundred Years of Solitude. The opposite of high concept is low concept, meaning stories that can’t be easily distilled because they’re about character or world development. They might have catchy titles (Freedom) but are still fairly difficult to summarize (Franzen’s thoughts about America); there just isn’t the same immediate recognition about what the story is about.

The problem with high concept stories is that the story may not be as interesting as its title. After the premise is introduced, the story is basically the same thing over and over again (Snakes on a Plane, Bad Teacher, Horrible Bosses). The trick, then, is finding a way to keep the conceit going in surprising ways. This means that the story may repeat itself or follow a predictable path but that it should have moments of surprise built into that path.

This is exactly what Guidubaldi does in “What I Wouldn’t Do.”

The high concept plot is stated succinctly in the story’s first line: “I wanted to love you better so I bought you a city.”

The rest of the first paragraph establishes the tone of the story:

It was small but shaped like your fingerprint, with a mansion for you in the middle of the whorl. It was hard to find, your mansion, but since I’d mapped it, troweled cement for the foundation, chopped logs for the beams, hammered and nailed and sanded until my hands fell off, lugged stones in a canvas sling with my teeth when they did, hung tapestries and draped velvet, since I did all of that, I had a pretty good idea where it was. I landscaped your rose garden and made your maze. I scissorhanded some topiaries for you in the shape of hearts and souls and kept up with their maintenance too; I was on a tight schedule and you were my hours and my half-pasts.

At this point, many readers will have a pretty good idea where this story is headed. The relationship will either grow or it will end (the basic plot lines for all love stories). As the relationship grows or falls apart, the conceit of the story (the city built for the lover) will also grow or fall apart. Once we read those details that move in either direction, we’re going to think, either consciously or not, “Aha.” Then, we may get bored; we know what will happen next. Guidubaldi follows one of these paths but what she does so well is include details that leap out of the conceit and surprise us in some way.

Here is a good example:

When the narrator’s beloved begins to chafe at all that is being built for her and around her, the narrator says this:

It’s not like you’re a prisoner here, I said. You’re free to walk out of your turret room and down the spiral staircase and through the antechamber and into the foyer and out the front door and past the rosemary and lavender bushes and into the hedge maze and down the cobblestoned circular streets and out into the world.

Personally, I think that line is really funny. I laughed out loud when I read it, and the sheer humor of it surprised me, in part because it reflects an awareness in the narrator of what he’s doing. He’s aware of the story’s high concept and its metaphoric qualities.

In another moment, the fairy-tale nature of the story’s conceit (the city build for the woman) is lowered into the grit of real life:

All bundled up, we went out into the city in a sleigh led by horses that I’d had surgically implanted to be unicorns. The one on the left had developed an abscess around the horn and it smelled bad, so I switched you seats.

And, then, a few lines later: “The horse with the inflamed horn scratched it off on a tree and your answer got lost among the resultant blood and gauze.”

Finally, the characters are allowed to sound like real people and not elements that simply arrived with the conceit like the Fisher Price farmer that comes with the plastic barn. For instance, the narrator tries to paint koi to cover up the fungus that is growing on them, and this dialogue ensues:

Jesus, you said, layering thin slices of cucumber on your eyes as if you were a salad now, too. Go order a pizza. Go back to work. Do what you need to do.

I stared at the tiny eyedropper, at the tainted fish, at my reflection in the murk. This is what I need to do, I said. The fish looked nervously skyward.

I suspect that plenty of real people, including, perhaps, the ones reading this, have spoken those lines or had those lines spoken to them. The conceit, in all of its fantastic absurdity, has been brought into the familiar realm of our real lives. As a result, the story continually makes the reader pause to laugh or cringe, and it’s those moments that make it succeed.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s add surprises to a high-concept story using “What I Wouldn’t Do” by Dina Guidubaldi as a model:

  1. Make the story and characters aware of the conceit. If a characters aren’t aware of the conceit, the reader may eventually become impatient with them. For instance, Manuel Gonzales has a story, “Life on Capra II,” about characters who are actually characters in a video game. At a certain point, one of them figures this out. If he didn’t, the story would be simply thin allegory, and we’d think, “Yeah, yeah, I get it” and thumb to the end to see how many pages are left. But when the characters gets it, too, then we wonder what will happen. So, make your characters aware of everything that you, the writer, are aware of. You can do this by simply rereading a passage that you’ve written and asking yourself, “What do I know?” Does your character know that, too? If not, how will that knowledge change how he or she feels or acts? In “What I Wouldn’t Do,” the narrator understands that the world he’s building is oppressive, and so his voice gains a kind of knowing irony.
  2. Lower the conceit into the grit of the real world. This is particularly important for sci-fi and fantasy novels. Think about the original Jurassic Park novel. These are freaking dinosaurs we’re talking about. If they escape their pens, why won’t they eat everyone in the world? The answer that Crichton invented is basic but important: the dinosaurs are on an island. (The latter movies are terrible because the dinosaurs reach the mainland and so the story becomes implausible.) Guidubaldi adds a basic biological detail to her unicorns: they get abscesses. So, take a look around your house or workplace: the places and bodies around you. Choose one or two details that you see and add them to your story, to a particular passage. What difference does it make?
  3. Bring the conceit into the realm of real human interactions. This is the same idea as the previous step, except your focusing on relationships and interactions. Take a look around you. How can you build a conversation or kind of conversation into your story. Guidubaldi does this when the narrator is making the woman feel especially claustrophobic. She says, “Go order a pizza. Go back to work. Do what you need to do.” She’s expressing her irritation in the mundane language of the real-life routine of a relationship. In other words, she’s expressing what she feels without referring to the conceit around her. So, take a look at the dialogue you’ve written. Does it refer to the conceit (zombies, dinosaurs, theme park)? If so, can you remove the reference so that the dialogue only refers to the emotions and feelings at hand?

Good luck.

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.

An Interview with Stefanie Freele

30 Apr
Stefanie Freele

Stefanie Freele “recasts suburban ennui as existential terror,” according to J. Robert Lenon. Her latest story appeared in Tahoma Literary Review.

Stefanie Freele is the author of two short story collections: Surrounded by Water and Feeding Strays. Her story “While Surrounded by Water” won the Glimmer Train Fiction Award and “Us Hungarians received second place in the Glimmer Train Family Matters Contest. Stefanie’s short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Mid-American ReviewWitness, Western Humanities Review, Sou’westerQuarterly WestThe Florida ReviewNight TrainAmerican Literary Review and Edge. Her work has twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

To read an exercise on writing descriptive passages and Freele’s story, “Davenports and Ottomans,” click here.

Michael Noll

I’m interested in the story’s approach to close description. The first paragraph focuses on Maribel’s shoes and purse and then zooms in on her tights, particularly on the crotch. The language seems meant to make the reader feel claustrophobic (and from your blog post for Tahoma Literary Review, I know that feeling is intentional). I’m curious in the last sentence of that paragraph:

She hates these ill-fitting tights, the crinkly dress, the stiff polished shoes, and her mother for making her wear all of this nonsense. 

It’s a line that seems to sum up the details that we just read. This is a strategy that I actually teach in writing classes: present details and them sum them up by telling the reader what they mean. Did you wrote this sentence with any purpose in mind or were you were simply following the rhythm of the prose?

Stefanie Freele

Typically I don’t intentionally tell the reader what I’ve meant, because I assume they’ve caught what I mean, but in this case I think you are partially right: I was following the rhythm of the prose. Also, I think having this list emphasizes that for Mirabel, she is counting and focusing on her discomforts. While another child might be proud of this attire and show it off to the aunties, Mirabel is physically sensitive – pride and appearances aren’t her vices.

Michael Noll

In this story, the dialogue is italicized and not broken out into separate paragraphs. There are no quotation marks. This is a technical question that comes up a lot in drafts and in writing classes. Did you format it this way to avoid slowing down the prose? Were you trying to embed the dialogue within the voice, rather than getting caught up in prolonged scenes?

Stefanie Freele

Both. I very much enjoy prose that doesn’t break dialogue into paragraphs by quotes. I find it a distracting break from the story and I often jut out of the dream to inquire, who is talking now? I realize that some people abhor italic dialogue, but I may unapologetically continue writing this way.

Michael Noll

The narrator is listening to the grown-ups in the room and noticing them “using adult words like Naugahyde and paisley,” This is a recurring idea in the story, the distinctions marked by particular words and phrases: “something special” and “smile and shape up” and “smirk.” This seems like a really useful way to clue readers in to the narrator’s age and relationships with the other people in the house. Is it something you fell into—one of those happy accidents in writing—or was it an effect you were intentionally trying to achieve?

Stefanie Freele

Let us go with the happy accident theory. I think I am watcher, like all writers I suppose, and a collector of the phrases people say. There can be a ton of dialogue between people, but there are those certain words that will stand out and directly indicate something about the character. I try not to waste any words that don’t have to do with the revealing the character, the story or some sort of underlying message.

Michael Noll

I guess this story would be classified as “flash fiction,” both because of its length but also because it takes place in an instant. Was it always confined to this particular moment in time? Or, was it carved out of a longer piece of writing?

Stefanie Freele

Ray Vukcevich's story

Ray Vukcevich’s story “The Sweater” is included in his collection Meet Me in the Moon Room from Small Beer Press.

It isn’t yet carved out of a longer piece of writing. I was exploring the idea of anxiety in children and what adults might miss or can’t see. I was also recalling certain memories (will never forget the awful tights) and that sensation that one feels like they might burst or rip apart due to discomfort from all angles.  To the other characters in the story, they have no idea what is going on with Mirabel, with that explosive distress. She has made some connections and decisions including that stealing what is forbidden is acceptable. So much is happening to her in a few minutes, in one room, in one scene, and nobody one knows. I love the idea of exploring what is happening to someone in an iota of time. Ray Vukcevich did this in his story “The Sweater” where the entire story is told while a character is trying on a sweater. A must read.

April 2015

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

An Interview with Judy Chicurel

20 Nov
Judy Chicurel novel, If I Knew You Were Going to Be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go, tells the story of a young woman in Long Island during the 70s.

Judy Chicurel novel, If I Knew You Were Going to Be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go, tells the story of a young woman coming of age in Long Island during the 70s.

Judy Chicurel’s writing has appeared The New York Times, Newsday and Granta, and her plays have been performed in NYC theaters and at festivals, including the NYC International Fringe Festival, New Perspectives Theatre, and Metropolitan Playhouse. She is a member of the New York Writers Coalition and was a 2011 Fellow in the CUNY Graduate Center Writers Institute Fiction Writing Program. She recently published her first novel, If I Knew You Were Going to be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go.

To read an excerpt from If I Knew You Were Going to Be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go and an exercise on creating a narrative clock, click here.

In the following interview, Chicurel discusses endings that aren’t neat, staying true to a character’s voice, and the writer as outsider.

Michael Noll

I’m really interested in your conception of the book as a collection of linked stories. On one hand, the book doesn’t quite build and develop its story lines the way a novel would. On the other hand, many of the stories do seem like chapters, with narrative arcs of their own and endings that seem incomplete, like the prelude to another story or chapter. Also, some of the chapters are almost character sketches, which is probably insufficient to drive a stand-alone story, but which, in the context of the book as a whole, are really probing and thoughtful. How did you decide on the structure of the book?

Judy Chicurel

The content and structure of If I Knew… almost had a life of its own. I wrote the last story first and knew it was going to be the last story, but really had no idea what would come before. I just started writing the stories pretty much out of sequence and I would send them to my agent as they were completed; I was simultaneously working on another novel at the same time, and at one point she said about If I Knew…, “I think this is your book.” I still didn’t know if it was going to be a novel or a story collection until the manuscript was finished, and then the linked stories made the most sense, particularly within the contextual setting of Elephant Beach. I liked the idea of stories about these connected lives that didn’t necessarily have neat, tied-in-a-bow conclusions and might haunt readers a little after they finished reading. This seems to have been accomplished, according to some of the reviews.

Michael Noll

I once heard Robert Stone talk about the drug experimentation of the Beats. They’d expected to create a cultural revolution, he said, but, in the end, many of the changes wrought by drug use were bad, both in the effects of addiction and the conservative societal and governmental response that followed. This book seems set after the glow has worn off. There’s not a lot of sense of promise and positive excitement to the drug use. For instance, the narrator talks about “boys I’d gone to school with, known forever, groping, sniffing, sliding around me, everyone high on acid or THC, thinking I was just as stoned as they were and it would be easy.” The drug use seems more predatory than hopefully experimental here. Is this a depiction you were aiming for?

Judy Chicurel

No. The sniffing and sliding around were more a result of hormones, not drug use, which, like alcohol, has been known to lower inhibitions when it comes to sexual activity. And don’t forget the sexual revolution was in full swing, which heightened expectations. But there’s a scene in the same chapter that you’re referring to where Katie considers having sex with one of her friends on a lifeguard chair, but it never happens because he passes out from too many Quaaludes, so I don’t think you can really call that predatory behavior.

I think we tend to delude ourselves with the notion that excessive behavior is always excusable if you’re some kind of artist because then drugs or alcohol have a creative purpose, when in reality people at all ends of the spectrum fare just as badly from resulting addictions. Whether we’re talking about the Beats or working class kids in the 1970s or young people today, a lot of experimentation with heavier drugs promised mind-expanding possibilities that yielded mind-diminishing consequences. Keep in mind not all the Beats enjoyed William Burroughs’ productivity and longevity.

Michael Noll

If I Knew You Were Going to Be This Beautiful

The Guardian called If I Knew...”a beautifully evocative portrait of one tight-knit working-class community on Long Island during the summer of 1972.”

You occasionally let your characters talk for long, uninterrupted stretches—especially Mitch. He has one piece of dialogue where he’s talking about the flowers in Vietnam, and he talks for at least a page. I don’t often read dialogue—or monologues—that last that long? Is that the effect of your experience as a playwright? How did you know when to let a character keep talking and when to shut him down?

Judy Chicurel

I think whether writing dialogue for plays or narrative fiction, you have to pay attention to your characters, more so than to the rules of whatever medium in which you’re writing. Mitch loves to drink and the drunker he gets, the more he likes to talk; in that particularly monologue, he’s finally found someone in Luke who can empathize with his experiences in Viet Nam and he’s sharing what for him was a critical memory. Luke, the other Viet Nam vet, is more taciturn; his war experiences have made him more of a brooder. I like to picture my characters and imagine their speech patterns, the sound of their voices, conversations they might have; sometimes I’ll write snippets of dialogue and think, “That’s a nice couple of lines, but would this character really say that?” So for me it’s more about respecting the characters, trying to stay true to their voices.

Michael Noll

At one point Katie is walking through her neighborhood, watching kids play and their parents hanging out on the stoops, and the description of the place is chaotic and messy, and Katie’s heart begins to beat faster and she thinks to herself, “These are my people.” That sense of belonging is really strong in the book, and I’m curious about how much you felt—and still feel—the same way. This stretch of Long Island is not a place you’d expect to find a published writer living. How has your sense of belonging to that community changed as you’ve grown as a person and an artist?

Judy Chicurel

I think I’ve almost always felt like something of an outsider no matter how much I appear to belong to a particular group. I’ve spoken to other writers who’ve experienced this kind of psychic detachment, where externally you’re part of the scene, but internally you might as well be on an island, alone, and on some level, you’re always observing. It’s an interesting paradox because most of the time, unless you tell them, nobody else knows how you’re really feeling.

I no longer live on Long Island and haven’t for over twenty years, though I still have friends who live there. But I’m often struck by the expectations of where published writers live and don’t live, and the typecasting of people who live on Long Island by folks both familiar and unfamiliar with the geographical terrain. When I did live there, I was a journalist who contributed to The New York Times and Newsday, as well as national magazines, and I knew many other writers doing the same thing who still enjoy living there or have moved there because they want to live five minutes from the beach. So I do think these types of assumptions tend to put limitations on people that probably shouldn’t be there. Readers might also keep in mind that If I Knew…takes place over forty years ago and that the demographics of Long Island, like practically every place else in America, have changed quite a bit.

November 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

An Interview with Kerry Howley

13 Nov
Kerry Howley traveled with MMA fighters for three years and wrote about the experience in her book-length essay THROWN.

Kerry Howley spent three years traveling and visiting with MMA fighters and wrote about the experience in her book-length essay Thrown.

Kerry Howley’s essays, reviews, and reportage have appeared in Harper’sThe New York Times MagazineSlateThe AtlanticThe Wall Street JournalGulf CoastVice.com, and frequently in Bookforum. Her short story “Pretty Citadel” was published in The Paris Review. Thrown, her book-length essay, is an account of three years spent in the company of mixed martial artists, narrated from the perspective of an excitable, semi-fictionalized graduate student named Kit. Howley teaches creative writing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

To read Howley’s essay “Cold Water in Texas” and an exercise on writing dialogue, click here.

In the following interview, Howley discusses framing essays around comic dialogue, the challenge of describing fight scenes, and the kind of person who is attracted to mixed martial arts.

Michael Noll

I’m really interested in the role and POV you assume in the piece (I’d call it an essay, but it’s partly fictionalized, yes?). There’s an interesting moment once you move out of the locker room and into the crowd. You write this:

In the way of any traveler, I ascribe every aberration to the jurisdiction. I have been to fights at bars and strip clubs and flyover state fairgrounds but never have I seen a barefoot ring girl — this one’s Vietnamese, in a bikini — and I’ve never seen an announcer cat-call a ring girl on his descent from the cage. “Texas,” I think.

It’s such an unexpected detail, and it suggests quite a bit of familiarity with the world of Mixed Martial Arts. How long did it take you to feel comfortable writing about a world that I’m assuming is pretty far outside your natural habitat?

Kerry Howley

It’s an essay, and semi-fictionalized in that the narrative voice is that of an imagined narrator named Kit. I probably felt comfortable well before comfort was justified. It took years for me to really understand the rhythms of those small fights, and longer to be able to write competently about them. That cat-calling of the ring girl is still surprising to me.

Michael Noll

In Thrown, Howley portrays the lives, battles, and worlds of two MMA fighters.

In Thrown, Howley portrays the lives, battles, and worlds of two MMA fighters from the perspective of a semi-fictionalized female graduate student.

It would seem tempting to draw conclusions about certain parts of society based on their love and enjoyment of MMA fighting. Yet you seem to resist this. At the beginning of the essay, you mention that fight takes place in Cleveland, Texas, where 19 men were charged with sexually abusing an 11-year-old girl, a fact that seems important, yet you refrain from drawing the connection, writing, “I don’t know what to do with this information.” Was it difficult to avoid that kind of societal analysis? Or did you find that the complexity of the people involved precluded easy conclusions.

Kerry Howley

It was never tempting to conflate the kind of brutality on display among Cleveland’s rapists with the kind of artful, consensual violence I was witnessing at the fights. I think my book-length essay, Thrown, does have something to say about the kind of person who is drawn to MMA. The men I follow tend to be proud nonconformists given to the kind of cosmopolitan worldview you’d expect from a sport closely identified with Japan and Brazil.

Michael Noll

I love the dialogue between the fighters as they’re trying to distract Charlie before the fight. It’s one of those rare moments when people are trying to be funny and succeeding and you seem to make a choice to get out of the way as a writer and let them talk. What was your approach to dialogue like this? Did you simply write it down as fast as possible and put it on the page? Or did you need to craft and revise the essay so that the dialogue would sound right?

Kerry Howley

Thank you. That was all recorded on my iPhone; I just transcribed what I took to be the best back-and-forth. I take such joy in bringing a funny voice to the page that I naturally frame essays around those moments. Part of editing the book involved purging a bunch of scenes I’d included—scenes much like the one you identify—that weren’t serving any purpose beyond amusement. I just felt like the reader had to know this hilarious thing the protagonist said about lawnmowers.

Michael Noll

You have a natural ease in writing about the actual fight—the punches and kicks, the action of it. This is actually quite difficult to do. It’s easy to get lost in a choreography of fists and feet, as in those films where the camera is zoomed in so close to the person fighting that we can’t get a sense for the action as a whole. But you really manage to convey both the immediate sense of what is happening and the arc of the fight. How did you approach writing these scenes?

Kerry Howley

Great question. The reader is only going to tolerate so much description of bodies in motion, so you end up molding a fight into the simplest version of itself—a few key moments and a mood. There are going to be a lot of small movements lost between point A and point B, and in that way perhaps writing about fighting (or dancing, which presents the same challenges) is emblematic of essay writing as a whole. So much of the struggle is subtraction.

November 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Attribute and Describe Dialogue

11 Nov
Kerry Howley's "Cold Water in Texas" portrays the MMA fighter Charlie Ontiveros' attempt to fight in spite of a broken hand.

Kerry Howley’s “Cold Water in Texas” portrays the MMA fighter Charlie Ontiveros’ decision to enter a bout despite having a broken hand.

Here is my claim for the most difficult thing to do in writing: attribute and describe dialogue. The problem of who said what can seem impossible to solve. How often do you attribute a line of dialogue? Every line? Every other line? What words do you use? Only said? Screamed? How do the characters speak their lines? With dancing eyes? (Definitely not.) While looking intently or patiently at someone? (Preferably not.) And, what if the dialogue includes more than two people? What do you do then?

A great model for how to handle these problems can be found in Kerry Howley’s essay, “Cold Water in Texas.” The essay is an extension of her new book Thrown, about the three years she spent with a series of mixed martial arts fighters. The essay was published at Vice Magazine‘s Fightland, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The essay begins in the locker room with MMA fighter Charlie Ontiveros and a roomful of others:

a reticent black 260-pound heavyweight champion wearing a hat that says “Jesus Didn’t Tap,” his extremely gregarious black 275-pound friend Chris in the same, a chubby Hispanic coach named Mando currently absorbed in the wrapping of Charlie’s hands, and lithe, lily-white 170-pound Charlie himself.

All of these men are trying to keep the mood light before the fight begins. Imagine the challenges of writing such a scene: at least three speakers, two with the same build and clothing, plus some cornermen and officials who haven’t even been named. If you’re writing this scene, how do you keep everyone straight? Watch how Howley does it:

The joke in the room is that when Derrick, the slow-to-speak 275-pound heavyweight who will tonight successfully defend his belt, has mounted you, the best way to get out of the situation is to come onto him.

“I just pinch his butt,” says Chris. “He jump right up and say, ‘Stop with that gay shit.’”

“I lick his ear,” someone offers.

“He talk so low you can’t hear him,” someone says of Derrick.

“He don’t talk low,” says Chris. “He talk sexy.”

“That’s some Barry White shit.”

“Some of us grew up eating animal crackers. Derrick grew up eating animals with crackers.”

Chris glides about the room as he speaks. “Do a split,” someone demands, and the 275-pound superheavyweight does a to-the-ground straddle worthy of a Texas cheerleader.

“I ain’t acting too colored,” he says, apropos of nothing in particular. “I just watched Django before I came here is all.”

Charlie is laughing so hard he is crying, wiping tears from his cheeks.

So, how does Howley handle multiple speakers? Only one of them is named: Chris. Why? Because he’s more or less directing the banter. The other speakers are lumped into the tag someone, which puts the emphasis not on the speaker but on the subject of the dialogue: Derrick.

In other words, Chris is leading a rapid-fire conversation about Derrick, and so the focus is on Chris and Derrick. Notice how Howley, as the writer, stays out of the dialogue except to clarify things. The first sentence explains what the men are talking about. There is no other description until Chris does the splits—so, the action accompanying the dialogue has been stripped down to the most interesting moment. Howley steps in again in the next line—”I ain’t acting too colored”—in order to clarify since the conversation has jumped topics. Finally, she directs our gaze to the purpose of all this banter: Charlie and his reaction.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write dialogue with more than two characters using “Cold Water in Texas” by Kerry Howley as a model:

  1. Summarize the dialogue. Think about the purpose and direction of the conversation as a whole. (If it’s an extended, even story-length piece of dialogue like Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” summarize a section of dialogue.) Howley’s dialogue could be summarized this way: Chris tries to distract Charlie by leading a series of rapid-fire jokes about Derrick. Notice how the summary identifies a leader, a subject, a tone, and a purpose.
  2. Set up the subject of the dialogue with summary. A general rule for writing dialogue is to get to the good stuff as quickly as possible. One way to do that is to identify the good stuff and summarize what the reader needs to know in order to follow the dialogue. This is exactly what Howley does when she begins the dialogue by explaining the joke in the room—the thing that everyone is laughing about. So, tell the reader who is present and what they’re talking about. Then, write the dialogue.
  3. Identify only the character leading the dialogue. It’s almost never important to identify every speaker. If the readers understand the direction of the dialogue and who’s leading it, you can simply identify the leader’s words and use they or everyone for everything else that gets said. If you’re writing an argument, you can also divide the group into factions (men and women, kids and adults, etc) and identify the statements by faction rather than by individual.
  4. Describe only the most important or interesting action. If the only thing that a speaker does is look at the other speaker, then you probably don’t need any description; most people look at the person they’re talking to. If they’re not looking (if they’re driving, on the phone), then it can be useful to describe their actions more often. Usually, though, you can use one good description to describe the action in the scene as a whole. Howley does this by describing Chris generally (“glides about the room”) and then specifically (“does a to-the-ground straddle”). Compared to that moment, what else could be worth mentioning? The answer can be found in the final line: the reaction that the speaker is trying to get. In this case, Chris is trying to get Charlie to laugh, and the essay shows us that he succeeded. In your scene, what reaction is the speaker trying to get? Does he or she succeed? Give an answer with description.
  5. Clarify to help orient the reader. Dialogue doesn’t always move in a straight line; in fact, good dialogue often doesn’t move directly from Point A to Point B. When it switches subject or tone, it’s often necessary to cue the reader to the change by giving a brief description of what has changed. Howley does this when she writes that Chris has changed subject “apropos of nothing in particular.”

Once you summarize the dialogue and understand who is driving it forward and what their aim is, you may find it easier to identify who said what and how they said it.

Good luck!

Three Ways to Write Dialogue

21 May
Walter Mosley's novel, Little Green, is the latest installment in the Easy Rawlins series.

Walter Mosley’s novel, Little Green, is the latest installment in the Easy Rawlins series. You can read an excerpt from the novel at NPR’s website.

It’s become a cliche of writing workshops that, in good dialogue, the characters talk past one another. But how? For a primer, pick up any book by Walter Mosley. His most recent is Little Green, the latest in the Easy Rawlins detective series.

You can read an excerpt from the novel, here, at NPR’s website.

How the Novel Works

There are two easy ways to get characters talking past one another. The first is to give them different ends they want to achieve in the scene. The other is to provide the characters with different levels or forms of information or knowledge. (Of course, a third method is to give the characters vastly different personalities.) All of these methods are on display in these two lines from Little Green:

“I’m lookin’ for somebody for Raymond,” I said when the laughter subsided. “Evander Noon.”

 “That’s just the seesaw action,” Jo replied. “You lookin’ for yourself.”

Method 1: Notice how the first speaker, Easy Rawlins, makes his goals clear. But Jo doesn’t give a clear answer. She wants to help him but in a different way.

Method 2: Jo claims that Easy has another, deeper goal, one that only she knows. She possesses knowledge that he doesn’t. As a result, the dialogue takes on the manner of a common person talking to a sage.

Method 3: Easy is a detective, and Jo is a voodoo queen. Thus, he is direct, and she speaks in code. Their styles are determined by their personalities.

As a result, the characters talk past one another. They can’t help it. They’re different types of people with different goals and levels of information.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s trying writing dialogue using the three methods described above.

  1. Create two characters with vastly different personalities, jobs, or situations. Think about how their speaking style would be affected by the job or situation. For instance (relying on broad types), motivational speakers are intensely positive and assertive. Cops tend to speak as if everything they say has been said a thousand times before, which it has. What would happen if you put a cop and a motivational speaker together in a scene? Their styles would probably clash.
  2. Give the characters different goals for the scene. The easiest version of this is a scene involving a couple: one person wants to go out and the other wants to stay in. But there’s another way to approach the method. Make the characters’ goals different in terms of type. So, in the scene with the couple, one person wants to go out, and the other wants to leave. The goals become fundamentally different.
  3. Give the characters different levels or types of knowledge/interest. Imagine if someone has a broken toilet and so calls the plumber. The person wants a particular task to be done, but when the plumber shows up, all he wants to talk about is the metaphysical implications of cracked porcelain. Their interests and knowledge-bases will clash in the dialogue.

Good luck.

How to Reveal Plot with Dialogue

9 Apr
The Dead We Know is a zombie novel in the tradition of epics like The Walking Dead and Stephen King's The Stand

The Dead We Know is a zombie novel in the tradition of serial epics like The Walking Dead

Can literary writers do genre? Many people think not. A literary writer will get bored with the conventions, they say, and begin experimenting, producing a pulp/literary hybrid.  Recent history shows many examples of this: Michael Chabon won a rash of prizes for his detective novel The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, and New Fabulists like George Saunders, Manuel Gonzales, and Karen Russell embrace and explore the conventions of fantasy and science fiction.

But what about the pure genre novel? Is it really off-limits to literary writers?

T. J. Danko is the pseudonym of a literary writer who has published stories in various journals, but his latest work embraces one of the most popular forms of genre literature—zombies. The Dead We Know is not a Chabon-like crossover or a Saunders-esque ironic treatment. It’s old-fashioned page-turner that keeps you up after your bedtime.  You can read the first chapter of The Dead We Know here.

How the Novel Works

Works of genre, like all novels, deliver pieces of information gradually. One way to accomplish this is through dialogue, and this is where The Dead We Know excels. For instance, look at Nick and Eduardo’ argument about whether the truck window should be rolled up or down:

“I’m freezing. Why aren’t you freezing?”

He closed his eyes and began to drift off. Eduardo punched him.


“What are you doing? You close the window and you go to sleep? Fuck you. You want me to crash or something?”

“Fine. Turn on the radio.”

“Fantastic,” Eduardo said. He switched on the radio, and there was a sharp crackle. He kept turning the dial, but there was only more noise.

“Nothing?” Nick asked.

“The whole trip I get nothing but static.”

Nick yawned loudly. “We’ve been driving in the middle of nowhere.”

“Help me stay awake,” Eduardo complained. “It’s boring driving in the middle of the night.”

The scene’s realism—Nick and Eduardo behave like every road-tripper who’s ever lived—is what heightens the tension. Through a realistic argument, we’re being told, indirectly, everything that will happen. Of course they will crash, and of course the crash will happen in the dark, in the middle of nowhere. This is a zombie novel, after all. It might be tempting, as a writer, to “reinvent” the genre, but the best genre novels stick to conventions. The writer’s skill is in making those conventions seem fresh and new. One way to do this is to avoid giving the reader information directly. Instead, focus on the characters, the ways their personalities clash. Give the characters lives that exist prior to the zombies. In other words, give the characters something to talk about, and then let the story intrude.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s play around with dialogue. For this exercise, write a scene (two pages max) in which you use only dialogue.

  1. Choose a setting (exiting a movie theater, approaching a rope bridge over a lava flow with pterodactyls flying everywhere).
  2. Choose a relationship dynamic (they’re fighting over…, they’re upset because…, they’re relaxed because…).
  3. Choose a goal (character will confess his/her love for the other, character will reveal a hideous secret)
  4. Now write the scene. But here are the rules: The characters cannot state outright the relationship dynamic or the goal. They must allude to or approach the dynamic/goal from an angle or under cover of some other piece of conversation.

These rules may seem difficult, yet you may discover that your scene begins to move in unexpected ways. Try it out.

Good luck.

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