Dialogue is one of the things I find most challenging in fiction because it can be hard to pinpoint what makes good dialogue. It’s not just how the characters speak, but also how conversations are depicted. Up until now, I’ve defined “good” dialogue as capturing how people actually talk.
“Getting dialogue right is boring!”
This was one of the notes I triple underlined during a writing class on dialogue I took a few weeks ago with Rumaan Alam, author of Leave the World Behind. The author’s goal is not necessarily to render what is real, but to take liberties. Much like the difference between a photo and a painting, dialogue in fiction is interesting because it reflects the artist’s objectives, values, and style.
Alam started off by asking us to think about the function of dialogue. It can be used to paint a picture of a person (their physical characteristics or character traits) and provide plot (exposition). Dialogue is a tool to reveal different things. It’s an opportunity to reveal character and play with tension. The author decides what to reveal, when, and how much.
We read excerpts from four different books and analyzed the ways each writer employed dialogue as a tool. In The Children's Bach, Helen Garner sets off thoughts in quotations like one normally would with dialogue. The effect is that readers are mostly hearing psychic dialogue, and even though very little is being said out loud in the scene, it still creates tension between the characters. In Fight Night by Miriam Toews, there are no quotation marks. This is a stylistic choice that may feel chaotic for readers but mirrors the way a young child—one of the main characters—speaks.
A close reading
I decided to reread one of my favorite short stories, Anthony Veasna So’s “We Would’ve Been Princes!” from his collection, Afterparties, while paying careful attention to the use of dialogue.
This is a story about two brothers, Marlon and Bond, who attend a wedding afterparty and try to find proof that their shady uncle didn’t gift any money to the bride and groom. It’s told in alternating close third and divided into various sections with titles tracking the night’s progression, like “The Drunken Monologues Cambos Deliver at 1:15 AM.”
Dialogue is rendered with speaker tags and quotation marks. It tries to capture how people talk, but also how a particular community (“California Valley Cambos”) talks. This reminded me of the concept of “familects”—“home slang” or “private in-group language” that fosters intimacy and establishes identity.
“We’re named after Marlon Brando and James fucking Bond! Which, in fact—the logic’s so Cambodian it hurts: name your kids after the first movies you saw after immigrating and bam!” Marlon clapped his hands together, the sound like thunder. “American Dream achieved!”
Some characters are given names, like Bond and Marlon, while others are given a title in all caps denoting their role in the community (similar to screenplays): FAMOUS SINGER, LOCAL ACCOUNTANT, BRIDE, GROOM, RICH MING. Bond and Marlon are the main characters, but they, like everyone else, wrestle with societal expectations and how they slot into their family and community. Marlon acknowledges the irony of their names, which adds another layer to the story.
“Wait—we can pivot,” Marlon said, proud to have used the word pivot in a context not involving his online coding classes, which he was taking for the tech boot camp his parents were paying for because he’d ruined his career in finance by sinking into an Adderall-induced psychosis, right in front of his old boss.
Chest puffed up, nostrils flared out, Visith walked the invisible perimeter between him and the cousins. “That’s why I’m successful and you dumbasses aren’t: I remember how we became rich. I don’t let anything set me back, see?—I don’t give a fuck.”
So uses dialogue to very efficiently affirm these characters and who they are. A single word out of Marlon’s mouth—pivot—tells us so much about his background and where he is in his life. Uncle Visith, who we’ve only been told via other characters is an asshole, proves them right in a few sentences.
“That’s the plan until we figure out a better plan.” [Bond] almost blurted, Please don’t get more wasted yourself, but then found himself thinking, Well, at least he’s not doing meth.
Perhaps his joke about their dad hadn’t been enough to alleviate the pressure, the guilt, the crazy whirlwind of thoughts his older brother was always feeling. But he couldn’t bring himself to utter a word, not even to mention what he’d been obsessing over all night—the mission, Marlon’s drinking, their mom.
The story is, at heart, about the reconciliation between two brothers who no longer know how to talk to each other. What they say often contradicts what they’re thinking, and they feel anxiety about whether they’ve said enough or the right thing.
The whiplash he felt about their lives seemed inexpressible, at least in words. Maybe this was the curse of becoming a painter. His exact thoughts and feelings solidified in oils, only coming to him slowly, latently, after summoning mental images that might translate into scenes, once brush was applied to canvas.
Language has limitations in capturing feelings, which also reflects Bond’s artistic tendencies as a painter.
He focused on his shoes, held tightly on to his bottle, and when the sky stopped spinning, he assembled the words he’d intended to say all night: “I…I thought you were doing better.”
And Marlon, having expected this, exhaled. “Yeah. I thought so, too.”
The brothers faced one another, each giving that look they had been exchanging ever since they could remember. Even when you’re the biggest fool, I got you.
Communication is not only what is spoken, but also what is understood. This works particularly well in a story about sibling reconciliation because siblings often have a history and language only they can understand.
Before returning to the house, the brothers emptied the rest of the favors, methodically unwrapping the mesh around each, until not one chocolate was left uneaten. And they imagined aloud all the nice things they could do together. They imagined a future severed from their past mistakes, the history they inherited, a world in which—with no questions asked, no hesitation felt—they completed the simple actions they thought, discussed, and dreamed.
Alam pointed out that the charge in a scene can come from just saying what a conversation is like and not even attempting to render it. So does this with the story’s ending paragraph. The details are less important than the fact they’re having the conversation at all.
Even though something seems “technically fixed” like dialogue, Alam reminded us that we can still experiment with our sentences. Some of his tips for writing dialogue were to eavesdrop, to think about film and TV which require dialogue in a way that fiction doesn’t, and to see how dialogue can be collapsed and clarified in the revision process.
Whether you lean heavily on adverbs, stick to simple dialogue tags, take big swings with structure (Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu), or omit quotation marks like Miriam Toews or Sally Rooney, each is an artistic choice with effects on the style and the reader. Alam suggests determining what your objective is and what your values are. Do you value clarity and simplicity? Do you want to frustrate the reader and be a pebble in their shoe?
Some authors do not do stylistically complex things and prioritize the story, while others love to depart from what’s commonly done. Just as I wrote about the reader’s vs. writer’s energy towards the text in the previous issue, this is another opportunity to understand what you’ve done for yourself and what you’ve done for the reader. The hard work is striking the right balance.
There is play and potential, even when things might, at first glance, seem codified. It’s helpful to look to writers that are taking these kinds of risks and seeing where your own intentions lie. Jami Attenberg loves writing dialogue precisely because it is “like the greatest little puzzle in the world.” For her, dialogue is the “quickest way for me to get to know a character. Letting them talk, listening to them. Soon enough it helps me to work my way into figuring out the broader story.”
“You’re always hostage to your perspective,” Alam said. “But that’s liberating!” We should not only accept that our authorial fingerprint will be all over our work, but be excited by it.
- Sabrina Qiao on fanfiction, community, and creative freedom: “It is important for writers to retain a love of their craft, even though the work can often be isolating and emotionally taxing, even though criticism is inherent in this line of work.”
- Applications for Craft Year with Meg Pillow are due May 1. Craft Year is a free, online writing workshop for a small cohort of ten people, designed for fiction and nonfiction writers who do not already hold an MFA. The cohort will meet twice a month for workshops and seminars.
- Allegra Hyde on fiction’s favorite endings: “By being intentional about time at the end of a work, an author can create pattern, contrast, connection; they can generate resonance.”
- Electric Literature’s Spring Salon Series is back! The virtual salons are pay-what-you-want and aim to demystify the craft of writing and the publishing process. Recordings of past salons are also available on Electric Literature’s website.
- “How To Practice ‘Productive Procrastination’” by Clive Thompson
Recent reads & other media
I savored (and massively underlined) Jenny Odell’s new book, Saving Time. It’s an ambitious examination of efficiency culture, the history of time and the language we use to describe it, and how the natural world and non-Western communities can provide alternate ways of experiencing time and our surroundings. Our anxieties about time are a product of politics, racism, and capitalism. From productivity bros to the wellness industry, Odell presents different ways we try to control time as individuals and as a society. As Megan Garber writes, Saving Time is “not merely a challenge to industrialized time; it is also—more so—a challenge to readers to resist the habits of cynicism that are so entwined with the tempos of our days.” Odell’s book is both “a rebuke to that restlessness” and a call to collective action.
I went with some friends to see some visual art! I really loved the textures and colors of David Heo’s Mythos at Hashimoto Contemporary. Tauba Auerbach’s Free Will at the Paula Cooper Gallery includes paintings of foams, molten glass and woven beads to illustrate the proposition that particles also have free will. I loved seeing how math and science can be woven into different artistic mediums.
The new season of Succession is a rollercoaster of emotions. R to the I-P! The Super Mario Bros. Movie was fun and filled with game references, but the real star is Jack Black as Bowser (I can’t stop singing peachespeachespeaches). I like that they imply that Peach is canonically from Brooklyn. My sister and I enjoyed Air, which is about the creation of Air Jordans at Nike. It’s weird to think of Nike as an underdog, but the movie is an interesting exploration of fame, iconography, and corporate branding.
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~ meme myself and i ~
Frank Ocean relearning his songs before Coachella. Unintentional gamer cat. The Animal Crossing / Breaking Bad crossover I didn’t know I needed. “She’s brought a ludicrously capacious bag.” Jack Black is a lyrical genius. A poetic pencil case.