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#39: Enlivening Dialogue with Telling Action
Raymond Carver, Cormac McCarthy, Michael Keaton, Gene Hackman, Iron Man, Thor, Julia Armfield.
I’ve spent most of the last couple weeks on the road, traveling to Provo, Utah and Kearney, Nebraska for university speaking gigs, popping home in between for teaching and writing and launching the ASU Worldbuilding Initiative. (Which is off to a great start: thanks to those of you who attended our first two events!) The next two weeks are going to be even busier, first with the Tucson Festival of Books this weekend, then the AWP conference in Seattle the week after. If you find yourself in one place or the other, say hi!
In Tucson, I’ll be in and around the festival all weekend, but my only official duty is to moderate the panel “That Got Weird” with Ander Monson and Juan Martinez, who’ll be talking about their books Predator and Extended Stay on Sunday, March 5 at 11:30am in the Student Union Kachina. Please join us, if you’re in Tucson!
At AWP in Seattle, you’ll be able to find me at any of the following events:
Reading: “Literary Rule Breakers,” with Jen Moore, Katie Berta, Josh Davis, Alyse Bensel, and Kelly Kathleen Ferguson. Thursday, March 9, 4pm, at Seattle Coffee Works, 108 Pine St.
Reading: AWP Offsite Circus, with Taisia Kitaiskaia, Nathan Hoks, Joyelle McSweeney, Evan Nicholls, Michael Earl Craig, Michael Bazzett ,Rick Bursky, Vi Khi Nao, Joanna Ruocco, Vik Shirley, Kik Araki-Kawaguchi, Kirsten (Kai) Ihns, Srikanth Reddy, Deb Olin Unferth, Sadie Dupuis, and Evan Williams. Thursday, March 9, 6-9pm, Spin Cycle Record, Store 321 Broadway E. (Note: I’ll be reading toward the end of this one, due to my earlier reading the same evening.)
Panel: “The Sentence is the Story: Reading, Writing, and Revising for Style and Sound,” with Alexander Chee, Allegra Hyde, Dantiel Montez, and Miciah Bay Gault. Friday, March 10, 9:00-10:15am, Terrace Suite II, Summit Building, Seattle Convention Center, Level 4.
Panel: “The Art of the Handout,” with Joseph Scapellato, Thirii Myo Kyaw, and Sarah Ghazal. Friday, March 10, 3:20-4:35pm, Rooms 440-442, Summit Building, Seattle Convention Center, Level 4.
Event(/Party?): “Battle of the Craft Experts,” hosted by Rebecca Makkai and StoryStudio Chicago, with Gayle Brandeis, Matthew Salesses, Robin Black, and Beth Nguyen, Friday, March 10, 7pm-10pm, at Barboza, 925 East Pike St.
Other than that, I’ll be roaming around the conference all week, so please say hello. I’m looking forward to seeing some of you these next two weeks!
As always, I hope your writing is going well, and that you and yours are happy and healthy. Be safe, be kind, and have fun with your reading and writing!
What I’m Reading:
Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield. I loved this novel, which is narrated by two wives, one a deep sea explorer who’s survived a mysterious accident in the depths of the ocean, the other tasked with caretaking for her wife on her return. The writing is gorgeous, and I’ll always have a soft spot for any book that takes partly in the deep. (Reading this made me immediately reread J.M. Ledgard’s Submergence, which has a similar above/below split between its two narrators.) “I used to think it was vital to know things, to feel safe in the learning and recounting of facts. I used to think it was possible to know enough to escape from the panic of not knowing, but I realize now that you can never learn enough to protect yourself, not really.”
#39: Enlivening Dialogue with Telling Action
I’ve written before about how dialogue has always been one of the most challenging parts of writing fiction for me, and of course it continues to be so: you don’t always eliminate your deficiencies so much as learn to live with them. But I also know I’m not alone in this struggle. Over the past year, I’ve had the chance to give a lot of craft lectures drawing on Refuse to Be Done, during which I always talk about how I revise dialogue, which—like so much else—I almost never get right on the first go.
One of the tactics I discuss in that talk (and in RTBD) is how at some point I always go through my manuscript searching for certain dialogue-adjacent verbs that aren’t wrong but also can sometimes be swapped out for something more interesting. These include smile or nod or shrug; I might also look for furrowed brows or frowns or grins or other overwrought facial expressions. I tend not to be given to more extreme facial contortions—no waggling of the eyebrows or scrunching of the nose for me—but there’s still usually some awkward facial or body action plopped in as a placeholder, indicating a place where something has to break up the dialogue. And something does usually need to go there: just not what’s there now.
Again: nothing wrong with individual uses of any of the above! (In fact, I once wrote an essay for Electric Literature about how often the characters in Cormac McCarthy’s grim, brutal novels smile at each other.) But these facial expressions and above-the-shoulder movements are still easy to overuse. The bigger problem may be that using exclusively facial expressions to break up dialogue can leave your characters standing still, doing nothing more than waiting for the other person to talk. We do stand around and talk in real life, of course, but most of the time we’re doing something else at the same time we’re talking. And isn’t it more visually interesting when we are?
I think so, which means that more often than not we need to keep our characters hands busy, and—ideally—their bodies. You can see this taken to one extreme in Marvel movies like The Avengers, where no one ever just talks. For example, Iron Man and Captain America can only be allowed to greet each other for the first time if they’re also occasionally throwing each other around the landscape:
It works well enough for the MCU—or at least they’ve done it a couple hundred times now—but this kind of scene is probably a bit much for most novels. So what should we fiction writers do instead?
When I think of staging dialogue, I often think of a stage play—note the verb “staging”—which I think makes sense, in part because fiction and plays are both implicit mediums, where the reader or audience member has to do some imaginative work to complete the scene. I’m only a casual theatergoer, but even I know that the characters are almost always kept moving around the stage, busily occupying themselves amid the dialogue. More often than not they have tasks to accomplish, often quite mundane ones: cooking a meal, cleaning a room, mending a fence. Whatever the task is, it gives the scene a purpose other than as a mere container for the conversation we’re overhearing—and it gives the audience something to look at while the characters are talking.
Sometimes the activity is central to the plot, sometimes not. The important takeaway is that good stage plays rarely do is have two characters stand on stage a set distance apart from each other, nodding and shrugging and waggling their eyebrows for the people in the cheap seats, who can’t see that kind of detail anyway.
I feel pretty confident about this way of thinking about dialogue, but every time I’m speaking about it in public, a nagging thought arises: what about a story like Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” which is literally just four people sitting around a table talking? How does that story handle this problem?
I finally sat down and reread Carver’s story today—it’s been at least a decade since the last time I did, and maybe two—and I was glad to find it was much as I’d remembered: great dialogue, compelling interactions between people, and almost but not quite no action. Here’s the setup, which in a few sentences delivers more or less all of the grounding you need to picture the scene:
My friend Mel McGinnis was talking. Mel McGinnis is a cardiologist, and sometimes that gives him the right.
The four of us were sitting around his kitchen table drinking gin. Sunlight filled the kitchen from the big window behind the sink. There were Mel and me and his second wife, Teresa—Terri, we called her—and my wife, Laura. We lived in Albuquerque then. But we were all from somewhere else.
There was an ice bucket on the table. The gin and the tonic water kept going around, and we somehow got on the subject of love.
From there, the story is almost entirely conversation—I’m not sure there’s ever another stretch of narration as long as what’s above. Let’s start with the first bit of this foursome’s conversation, with what little physical action there is bolded:
Terri said the man she lived with before she lived with Mel loved her so much he tried to kill her. Then Terri said, “He beat me up one night. He dragged me around the living room by my ankles. He kept saying, ‘I love you, I love you, you bitch.’ He went on dragging me around the living room. My head kept knocking on things.” Terri looked around the table. “What do you do with love like that?”
She was a bone-thin woman with a pretty face, dark eyes, and brown hair that hung down her back. She liked necklaces made of turquoise, and long pendant earrings.
“My God, don’t be silly. That’s not love, and you know it,” Mel said. “I don’t know what you’d call it, but I sure know you wouldn’t call it love.”
“Say what you want to, but I know it was,” Terri said. “It may sound crazy to you, but it’s true just the same. People are different, Mel. Sure, sometimes he may have acted crazy. Okay. But he loved me. In his own way maybe, but he loved me. There was love there, Mel. Don’t say there wasn’t.”
Mel let out his breath. He held his glass and turned to Laura and me. “The man threatened to kill me,” Mel said. He finished his drink and reached for the gin bottle. “Terri’s a romantic. Terri’s of the kick-me-so-I’ll-know-you-love-me school. Terri, hon, don’t look that way.” Mel reached across the table and touched Terri’s cheek with his fingers. He grinned at her.
“Now he wants to make up,” Terri said.
“Make up what?” Mel said. “What is there to make up? I know what I know. That’s all.”
“How’d we get started on this subject, anyway?” Terri said. She raised her glass and drank from it. “Mel always has love on his mind,” she said. “Don’t you, honey?” She smiled, and I thought that was the last of it.
“I just wouldn’t call Ed’s behavior love. That’s all I’m saying, honey,” Mel said. “What about you guys?” Mel said to Laura and me. “Does that sound like love to you?”
Terri looks. Mel breathes dramatically and brandishes a near-empty glass, he throws his gin-and-tonic back and grabs the bottle from the center of the table. He touches Terri’s cheek and grins. She drinks her gin and smiles back. Mel—as implied by the second dialogue tag of the last paragraph above— turns from Terri to Laura and the narrator. The section ends a couple paragraphs later with a burst of small action:
I touched the back of Laura’s hand. She gave me a quick smile. I picked up Laura’s hand. It was warm, the nails polished, perfectly manicured. I encircled the broad wrist with my fingers, and I held her.
The actions are very small, each one a gestural gesture, revealing by implication. (What are they revealing? Mostly how drunk everyone is getting.) Some are exactly the kind of things I complained about above: smiles and grins and smiles again. But if you track through the story, there’s at least one set of objects that’s always on the move: the four glasses and the bottle of gin. Here’s all of the action from the next few pages, all lifted from between lines of dialogue:
She waited for a minute, then let go of her arms and picked up her glass.
Mel handed me the saucer of limes. I took a section, squeezed it over my drink, and stirred the ice cubes with my finger.
Laura leaned forward with her glass. She put her elbows on the table and held her glass in both hands.
[Terri] poured the last of the gin into her glass and waggled the bottle. Mel got up from the table and went to the cupboard. He took down another bottle.
[Terri] held her drink and gazed at Laura.
Mel opened the gin and went around the table with the bottle.
We touched glasses. “To love,” we said.
[Mel] poured more gin into his glass. He added an ice cube and a sliver of lime. We waited and sipped our drinks.
[Terri] picked up her glass.
[Mel] picked up his glass.
Mel was handing the bottle around the table.
[Mel] drank from his glass.
Mel poured himself another drink. He looked at the label closely as if studying a long row of numbers. Then he slowly put the bottle down on the table and slowly reached for the tonic water.
Mel turned his glass over. He spilled it out on the table.
There are also some minor physical gestures placed throughout the story—my favorite is an agonizingly slow and clearly drunken crossing of Mel’s legs—but for the most part, this is it: bottles are opened, passed around, the gin in them consumed. Throughout, Mel holds court, taking up most of the air in the conversation, while the others occasionally chime in, questioning or correcting or chiding. The conversation is the reason to read the story—there’s some dialogue in this story that I remembered almost verbatim, ten or twenty years after I last read it—but the action is what makes the scene come alive. Without the gin moving around the table—and into the characters—there wouldn’t be anything to see in your mind’s eye. Your imagination wouldn’t have anything to do.
(An aside: how good is that double slowly above, in the second-to-last example I pulled? That’s one of the drunkest feeling moments in a story that more closely approximates the feeling of getting too drunk with friends than maybe any other I know.)
This next bit of advice is perhaps more revealing of my particular brain than of any general rule, so take it with a grain of salt: I believe it is very hard to picture the faces of imaginary people but that the movements of imaginary people are easier to see, if we’re given the right prompts. A body in motion is an easier lift for our imagination than a face scrunching and waggling or whatever. So keep your characters moving, even if it’s only to reach for the closest gin bottle.
One other thing I’d note is that Carver gets extra action into the story by including some of it in the dialogue itself: it’s subtle, but there are places where characters describe an action they’re going to take that doesn’t otherwise appear in the narration. I seem to always forget that's a possibility in my early drafts, but it can make things so much more concise and active.
I’d like to wrap up this discussion of how “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” works visually by noting that we do have a famous example of Carver’s story being turned into a stage play in the movie Birdman, where the rehearsing actors do exactly what I suggest characters should not, on the page. In this scene, watch how the characters take turns speaking and gesturing without ever interacting with the props in front of them, not even the gin bottle Carver was so careful to keep moving in his own story. For me, it’s not nearly as visually interesting as reading Carver’s story is, despite the constantly moving camera and the intense gesticulations of the actors:
Finally, I’ll end with one more example of action enlivening dialogue in film, one that’s perhaps too random to be entirely useful, but that I’ve never forgotten. In thinking about scenes where a character is doing something just to keep them busy while they talk, I remembered my favorite post-coital film scene of all time, from the 1975 movie Night Moves, where a naked Gene Hackman lies in bed with his wine-drinking wife, facing away from her but chattering away, all the while rubbing her bare breast with his foot while busily enjoying a fondue off the back of the bed:
This couple could have been sitting beside each other in bed, having the same conversation. It wouldn’t change the dialogue itself—but doesn’t Gene Hackman’s admirable limb independence make whatever they’re talking about a little more interesting?
Your exercise this month can be done in two ways, one revision and one generative:
Take a dialogue-dominated scene you’ve deemed unsuccessful and strip all of the action out of it. Now replace it with new action, focusing on two kinds of movement:
Action that gives the scene its purpose, so that the scene exists for a reason other than the dialogue being spoken.
Action that keeps the character’s whole bodies in motion, not just their faces or hands.
Or, draft a completely new conversation between two or more characters, writing only what people say. Begin without worrying at all about the actions characters make or how they’re physically reacting to each other’s speech. If you do feel a desire to include action as you’re drafting, try to imply it through the dialogue instead of narrating it from outside. Then, once you’ve finished your draft, go back and add physical action and narration as in Option 1.
Good luck! I’ll see you next month!
P.S. I know there’s always going to be some people who prefer Carver’s restored “Beginners” over the Gordon Lish-edited “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” but I’m not one of them. I did go back and reread “Beginners” anyway, just to see if there was anything different about the action, but in the end I felt the two versions are close enough in this respect that I didn’t need to address the differences above.
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Matt Bell’s novel Appleseed (a New York Times Notable book) was published by HarperCollins in July 2021. His craft book Refuse to Be Done, a guide to novel writing, rewriting, & revision, is out now from Soho Press. He’s also the author of the novels Scrapper and In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, as well as the short story collection A Tree or a Person or a Wall, a non-fiction book about the classic video game Baldur’s Gate II, and several other titles. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Esquire, Tin House, Conjunctions, Fairy Tale Review, American Short Fiction, and many other publications. A native of Michigan, he teaches creative writing at Arizona State University.