Tag Archives: informal language

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.

How to Develop a Rapport with the Reader

26 May
David James Poissant's story,

David James Poissant’s story, “Stealing Orlando,” appears in the latest edition of Newfound.

A few years ago, the guest editor for The Best American Short Stories (I think it was Alice Sebold) wrote that she chose the stories while sitting on a plane. If a story could hold her attention in that hectic environment, then it was a good one. If it couldn’t, then it wasn’t. It’s true that certain kinds of quiet stories might not be great reads for an airplane, but it’s also true that most of us make up our minds about a story by the end of the first page or two. So, how can we make our own stories grab the reader? I’ve written before about writing quick-starting opening paragraphs. But there are other ways as well.

David James Poissant uses the opening paragraphs of his story, “Stealing Orlando,” to develop a rapport with the reader. You can read it now at Newfound.

How the Story Works

The story begins with an intriguing premise: the narrator’s wife wants him to dress up like Orlando Bloom in Elizabethtown while they have sex. There are many ways to introduce such a premise, but Poissant uses a particular kind of informal language that draws the reader in. You can see it at work in the first sentence:

What happened was our marriage was falling apart, the way marriages do, and, in our falling, my wife Delia and I got real honest, because why not, because what did we have to lose?

Notice the phrases “the way marriages do” and “real honest” and “because why not”. This is how people talk in real life: we generalize, we’re ungrammatical, and we use flip phrases to to talk about things that could be embarrassing. There’s a kind of confessional tone at work, and it’s natural for the reader to lean in to listen. We’re naturally drawn to confessions.

In moments of honest confession, the speaker often tries to connect with the listener. Who wants to confess to something that is unimaginable to the other person? This is exactly what Poissant’s narrator does:

This was one of those nights where you both drink so much you feel closer than you are and safer than you are, and so you speak dangerously, say things that make it hard the next morning to meet eyes.

The phrase “one of those nights where” implies that we, the readers, understand what those nights are like.

Even the premise itself suggests a kind of intimacy between narrator and reader. Workshop teachers occasionally claim that stories should be universal, that they shouldn’t contain time-sensitive cultural references. Such references may or may not affect the story’s readers twenty years in the future, but they do make connects to its contemporary readers. What do we talk about most of the time? Movies and television. So, why not use those conversations in fiction? Here is how Poissant does exactly that:

This was a decade ago, after Orlando Bloom grew elf ears, but before the “Pirates” movies got so bad. Anyhow, it wasn’t elf Bloom Delia wanted, with his weirdo bow and creepy side braid, or swashbuckling Bloom with his muttonchops and creepy half goatee. No, Delia had a thing for Drew Baylor, the suicidal-but-clean-cut lead in what was—and pretty much remains—Cameron Crowe’s worst film. That was the Orlando she wanted.

This paragraph assumes that we understand its references: “before the ‘Pirates’ movies got so bad.” By giving the reader credit, the story draws us in.

Finally, the story actually addresses the reader directly:

And because this was a decade ago, my telling you this means I know how things turned out. As in, I could tell you, Did the marriage make it, yes or no?

But I’m not going to tell you, not yet, because where’s the fun in that?

And also because read, you lazy motherfucker, read.

Those lines may seem risky (and perhaps they will turn off some readers), but they’re built on a rapport that has been developed over the first page of the story. Many readers will want to know what happened to the marriage, and the rapport we feel with the narrator is a big reason why we’ll keep reading.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s develop a rapport with the reader, using “Stealing Orlando” by David James Poissant as a model:

  1. Use informal phrases in the first paragraph. Stories can use many different ranges of language, of course, including the very formal. However, stories also don’t have book jackets and marketing teams. Readers can’t be lured in before picking up the story, as they can with novels. So, a language that implies some connection with the reader is useful. (Novels do this, too. Read the opening page of Junot Diaz’s The Brief and Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao.) Try including phrases in the opening paragraph that generalize, are ungrammatical, or that cover up embarrassment or emotion. In other words, how can you add a few words to make the prose feel as if it’s sitting beside the readers, not lecturing to them.
  2. Refer to a shared understanding with the reader. You can use Poissant’s phrase as a starter: “This was one of those nights where…” This phrase can be taken in an honest direction by using an experience that truly is shared by most people. Or, you can use it to surprise the reader: “This was one of those nights where you end up shooting cats and showing up naked on your fiancé’s doorstep.” Obviously, most people have never done that, and the suggestion that we have is so ludicrous that we’re drawn in anyway.
  3. Use specific cultural references. A key to making this work is to suggest a shared knowledge. So, don’t just sprinkle in references. Instead, make judgments about those references that many people share (or, don’t share, if you’re trying to surprise the reader). Think about the narrative arc of a references. Poissant does this with the Pirates of the Caribbean movies: they were pretty good and then they weren’t. Pretty much any cultural reference that has staying power will have an arc: people won’t feel the same about it the entire time. If you refer to those changing opinions, you give the reader a chance to fill in the blanks with their own opinions, which draws them in.
  4. Address the reader directly. Again, try using Poissant’s exact phrase: “I could tell you, Did the marriage make it, yes or no.” Replace the question about the marriage with a question that is integral to the premise or plot of your story. This won’t work for every story. However, in some stories, if you develop a rapport with the reader, you can also acknowledge the artificial nature of the story itself, and that admission will actually strengthen the rapport. You’re simply admitting what the reader already knows. You’re giving the reader credit for being smart.

Good luck and have fun.

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