Tag Archives: story tension

How to Write Away from Consensus in Dialogue

15 Oct
Mary Miller's story "I Won't Get Lost" appeared at New World Writing, an online journal founded by former Mississippi Review editor Frederick Barthelme.

Mary Miller’s story “I Won’t Get Lost” appeared at New World Writing. Her novel, The Last Days of California, is out now from Liveright.

In real-life conversations, we almost always seek common ground and compromise. Like the advice for married couples, we try not to go to bed angry. We want to leave a conversation having agreed upon something or with some shared understanding. But fiction is not like real life. In stories and novels, dialogue between characters who are seeking mutual understanding is boring. It kills, rather than heightens, tension. This means that good dialogue in fiction is actually the opposite of a good real-life conversation. It must veer away from consensus and not toward it.

Mary Miller demonstrates how to write dialogue that moves away from understanding in her story, “I Won’t Get Lost.” You can read it now at New World Writing.

How the Story Works

The story is about a woman riding a bus. A man asks her about the neighborhoods in the city, whether one of them is dangerous, and she says no, the area has been gentrified. Here is the conversation that follows, beginning with the man’s response:

What’s that?


I’ve never heard of it, he says.

It’s when rich people move into a poor neighborhood and buy up all the houses and make them nicer. And then the property values go up and the poor people can’t pay their taxes and have to move out. He’s looking at me like I might be brilliant. It’s controversial, I add.

I’ve never heard of it, he says. Is that a real thing?

Yep, I say, gentrification.

I’m going to look it up, he says, and takes out his phone.

The dialogue begins with a simple question, which receives a simple answer. Normally, the natural, logical next step would be consensus. The man would say, “Ah, now I understand.” But that’s not what happens. First, he expresses disbelief. Then he steps out of the conversation in order to verify the answer on his phone. He is resisting the basic human impulse to agree. As a result, tension is created. In the next paragraph, the woman worries about her appearance. She’s disconcerted, and though the story doesn’t draw a direct line between the unresolved distance between the two speakers in the conversation, the discomfort is clear—and discomfort is one way to push a story forward, to create tension.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write dialogue that veers away from understanding using “I Won’t Get Lost” as an example. The dialogue in Mary Miller’s story is between a person of authority and one with questions. The woman has the authority of knowledge (she knows the local landscape and the definition of gentrification). The man doesn’t have this knowledge but wants it. Let’s do something similar in the exercise:

  1. Choose two characters, one with authority and one who is requesting something of that authority. You could choose someone with an authority of knowledge, like the woman on the bus in Miller’s story, or you could choose a literal authority (teacher, police officer, administrator, parent, preacher, politician, or someone with the authority that comes with a particular expertise such as a scientific researcher, engineer, or car mechanic).
  2. Choose a place for the dialogue to occur. Keep in mind the way that place can enhance or diminish authority. So, if the dialogue takes place in the person of authority’s office or workplace, that person’s authority is enhanced. But if the dialogue happens in public or in some version of the private sphere, the authority might be diminished. In other words, on whose turf is the dialogue taking place?
  3. Begin with a question or request. Miller’s story begins with a request for information: Where should the man go that isn’t dangerous? It’s a simple question that assumes the other person’s authority—the man asks the woman because she’s from the city in question and, therefore, knows where to go. So, in your story, consider what question might be posed to the person of authority. The question might be posed out of necessity or out of curiosity. You might try posing a couple of different questions until you find one that you like.
  4. Supply an answer. Let the person of authority respond to the question.
  5. Ask for clarification. Let the questioner ask about part of the answer. In Miller’s story, the man asks about gentrification, which was part of the answer to where he should go. In your story, you might let the questioner ask about a term used by the authority or the rationale behind part of the answer.
  6. Supply clarification. This one’s easy. Let the authority answer again.
  7. Ignore or deny the answer. This is where the dialogue swerves off track. The normal expectation is that if a question is posed and an answer is given, then some level of understanding has been achieved. But we’re actually aiming to avoid understanding. So, let the questioner refuse to accept the answer by denying it’s accuracy or rationale or by acting as if no answer has been given at all. (If you have kids, then you’re familiar with ignored questions and requests and the tension that creates.) In Miller’s story, the man essentially ignores the woman’s answer and seeks out the same answer on his phone.

Your goal in this dialogue is to break the societal expectations for a certain kind of exchange. We expect to be listened to, to have our expertise respected, and when that doesn’t happen, it’s as if civilization itself has, in some small way, failed. The best dialogue is not an argument but rather a conversation in which one of the sides denies the other side’s authority or right to speak.

Good luck and have fun.

Setting Up the Inevitable

4 Jun
"Crossing" by Mark Slouka was first published in The Paris Review.

“Crossing” by Mark Slouka was first published in The Paris Review.

Any hack with the smallest facility for plot can walk a character into a situation that cannot be escaped. But it takes skill and craft to make the reader feel the character’s desperation. This is exactly what Mark Slouka does in his story, “Crossing.” By the last paragraph, the tension is nearly unbearable. The ending is powerful: “There was nowhere to go. It didn’t matter. They had to go.”

To find out how Mark Slouka builds the tension so subtly and yet to such an incredible pitch, read “Crossing” at here at The Paris Review.

How “Crossing” Works

Slouka does two things at once in the story.

First, he takes the father back and forth across the river: with the backpacks and then with his son on his back, and then an identical set of return trips the next day. The first set of trips allows the story to show us the river and the care required to cross it. The details are not particularly subtle. For instance, the father remembers when he was a boy crossing the river with his own father and asking, “what do you do if you fall?” His father answered, “Don’t fuckin’ fall.” It becomes clear where this story is headed.

Yet we forget this inevitable end because of the second thing Slouka does. While the river takes a central place in the story, the focus is actually on the father’s memories and thoughts. In fact, the river doesn’t even appear until the fifth paragraph. The story opens in the house of the man’s ex-wife, where the man is picking up his son:

“He went inside, wiping his shoes and ducking his head like a visitor, and when the boy came running into the living room he threw him over his shoulder, careful not to hit his head on the corner of the TV, and at some point he saw her watching them, leaning against the kitchen counter in her bathrobe, and when he looked at her she shook her head and looked away and at that moment he thought, maybe—maybe he could make this right.”

Slouka uses this opening to set the stakes: the man is going to use this camping trip to make things right with his family. His thoughts circle this idea throughout the story, even as he’s crossing the river. And so he does not see a second set of story stakes appear. While the story starts out being about making this right with his family, it will end with both two lives in the balance.

The Writing Exercise

  1. Pick a place to which you have a strong emotional connection.
  2. Ask yourself: What is dangerous about that place? Or, what danger could the place pose to someone who feels about it the same as you do? The danger could be literal (drowning) or emotional (the end of a relationship). For instance, if I choose my current back yard, where I’m landscaping, the danger might be that a character such as myself spends so much time thinking about what trees to plant that he misses something more important (kids, spouse, etc.). The danger could also be literal: cutting off a finger with a saw.
  3. Create a character who will face the danger.
  4. Finally outline how he or she will end up facing the dangerous situation. What details are crucial to establishing the danger? Why doesn’t the character avoid the situation? You must decide where the story begins. Doing so will give you a timeframe and help determine how quickly or slowly to dole out information.

Many writers will feel reluctant to plan out a story this way or will be unable to stick to the outline once they begin writing. That’s okay. The point of this exercise is to develop a feel for how to parcel out information in order to create suspense.

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