Exercise #11: Plotting Better Dialogue
Charles Johnson, Danielle Evans, Charles Yu, Gabriel Blackwell, Lara Ehrlich, Jeff VanderMeer
Welcome to my last missive of 2020! Starting this newsletter and connecting with so many of you has been a highlight of long and difficult year, and I’m so grateful to you for reading it, for the correspondence you’ve sent me, and for the many stories I hear have come out of these exercises: every month now someone tells me about a new publication of theirs that began here, and it absolutely makes my day every time. Thank you!
As we approach the end of the year, I hope you’ll bear with me while I share a couple pieces of my own publishing news, about my books forthcoming in 2021 and beyond—but if you’d rather skip to the reading recommendations or the exercise below instead, please feel free.
First, this month brought the cover reveal of my new novel Appleseed, which will be published on July 13, 2021 by Custom House (and is available for preorder now):
I’m so grateful to designer Ploy Siripant for this striking cover, and to Stephen Graham Jones (author most recently of The Only Good Indians, one of my favorite novels of the year) for the novel’s first blurb: "The reason you’ve never read a book like Appleseed is that there’s never been a book like Appleseed. The scary thing, though, is this is a world you might recognize. This premise, this content, this form, this language—only Matt Bell could have given us this novel."
And that’s not the only book to look forward to! I’m excited to finally be able to share the news that Soho Press will publish my craft book Refuse to Be Done, a guide to novel writing, rewriting, and revision, in early 2022. It’s a long ways off yet, but I hope that anyone who finds this newsletter useful will find that book helpful too, when the time comes.
As always, if you write something you like using the exercise below, feel free to tell me so. You’re also welcome to pass this prompt on to others, if you’d like, either by forwarding the email or sharing the link on social media. If you do, know that I appreciate it.
Be safe this week, be kind to each other, and good luck with the exercise! See you next year!
What I’m Reading:
The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans. Danielle Evans is one of my favorite story writers, and her new book is absolutely fantastic so far. If you need a sample first, check out her story “Why Won’t Women Just Say What They Want” at Barrelhouse or an earlier version of the collection’s opener, “Happily Ever After,” published at Gay.
Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu. I reread Yu’s latest novel the day after it won the National Book Award, and the entire time I kept thinking how happy I was that a formally innovative, laugh-out-loud novel in the second person (!) won this year. An incredibly smart and memorable book.
Babel by Gabriel Blackwell. I had the good fortune to edit The Collagist (now The Rupture) with Gabriel Blackwell for several years before I left the magazine, after which he stayed on as editor-in-chief and continued to put to good use his keen eye for innovative and surprising fiction. No wonder too, when his own work is so fresh and inventive and, as in his story “A Field in Winter,” often deeply uncanny. My guess is that this collection is unlike anything else you’re reading right now. Don’t miss it.
Animal Wife by Lara Ehrlich. I’ve only had the chance to read the title story of this new collection so far, but that story was one of the best fairy tale-inflected stories I’ve read in a long time. This kind of writing is right up my alley, and I can’t wait to read more of Ehrlich’s book:
“When I was little and still afraid, my mother would lie with me, telling me story after story. Little girls who fell in love turned into sea foam or wind. They walked as if on knives, kept silent for seven years, wove thistle shirts until their fingers bled. They never learned to leave locked doors alone. Hunters and thieves and kings pursued them, cut out their hearts, scooped out their eyes, and snipped off their tongues. She told her own story like a fairy tale.”
Doing some holiday shopping and need more recommendations? Click here to find every book mentioned or recommended in this newsletter to date, at Bookshop.
Exercise #11: Plotting Better Dialogue
For me, dialogue has always been one of the most challenging parts of writing fiction, and, if my students’ frequently desperate questions about how to do it well are any indication, it’s a challenge for a lot of other people too. For a long time, I solved my problem with dialogue by simply avoiding writing much of it, hiding my deficiencies with other techniques that came easier to me. But as I set out to write Appleseed, I decided that I had to stop running and figure it out. It was time to get better at dialogue, one way or another, both as a writer and a teacher: I never want my weaknesses to become my students’, just because I struggle to explain something I can’t do well.
What I’ve found is that my own deficiency wasn’t necessarily caused by not having a good ear for dialogue or not knowing what people in my stories should say, but rather by not always knowing how to organize the flow of a conversation in a way that keeps it engaging, propelling the reader onward. (I think this is true of most of my students, as well: most of them are charming conversationalists, which means they instinctively know how to make the contents of good dialogue—it’s the rendering it on the page that gets them in trouble.) What turned out to be most helpful to me, in the end, was focusing less on what any individual bit of speech should do and more on how a conversation is shaped and organized in a dialogue-driven scene.
To do this well, I decided I needed some new language for talking about dialogue, because, for me, technical possibility flows first through finding the right terms to describe my desired effect. For instance, in Charles Johnson’s The Way of the Writer, I found that Johnson breaks the dramatic structure of the dialogue-driven scene into four parts: the entrance, the rhythm, the hit, and the exit:
1) The entrance is, according to Johnson, often “very natural and easy small talk or banter,” despite the fact that each character has entered the scene “motivated by a desire or need (or conflict)”;
2) the rhythm is “the natural flow of speech between two people,” generating seemingly innocuous back-and-forth conversation which eventually leads to:
3) the hit, “that heightened moment in their exchange where the issue (or conflict) that has brought them together is finally revealed,” which plays out until “the emotional encounter experienced by the characters in a single dramatic scene will cause them to register some degree of change psychologically, i.e., they will not exit that scene as clean as they went into it”;
4) once that change has occurred, the exit follows, taking characters away from both the conversation and the scene.
For me, Johnson’s progression of discrete stages is a useful way of thinking of the steps of a dialogue-driven scene. But what about the dramatic content of those steps? For that I’d like to turn to Jeff VanderMeer’s Wonderbook, where VanderMeer lists four elements by which writers traditionally progress the plot of a story or novel: discoveries, complications, reversals, and resolutions. One way I’ve found to write dialogue-driven scenes—or at least to diagnose what’s wrong with a lackluster one already written—is to try to make the scene’s dialogue contain as many of those four elements as I can.
For instance, a conversation might begin with a discovery (which VanderMeer describes as characters “[finding] out things about themselves, other people, or the world in general]”), which reveals a reversal of the characters’s fortunes (a setback “that serves to stimulate dramatic interest”) or creates a complication (wherein “the solution” to the central conflict of the conversation “seems murkier for a time”). As a dialogue-driven scene continues, some of these elements might repeat: multiple discoveries, flowing between the characters; multiple reversals or complications, as one character and then the other gains the upper hand. Eventually, the conversation reaches its resolution (“a conclusion that satisfies the reader’s interest in the characters and the problems posed”). Crucially, while a resolution at the end of a story usually brings the story to an end, most of the time the resolution in a mid-story scene has to open outward, creating both satisfaction that this scene has properly concludes and dramatic necessity for the scene that follows.
One reason this method works, I think, is that most fictional conversation is competition, even if only subtly: whenever characters are speaking, they're doing so in pursuit of their own agendas, whether that's extracting information, making a convincing argument, or trying to seem funny or sexy or brave. Every successful dialogue-driven scene, therefore, might be made to contain a miniature plot all its own, powered by the competing wants of the characters speaking.
Let’s put all this into practice, shall we?
This month, your exercise is to write a new scene of dialogue (or revise an existing one) using one of the two structures above. You may choose between:
1) writing a dialogue-driven scene that proceeds from the entrance to the rhythm to the hit through to the exit, as in Johnson’s schema;
2) or writing a dialogue-driven scene containing a discovery, a complication, a reversal, and a resolution, as in VanderMeer’s. If you choose to use the VanderMeer terms, consider writing yourself a quick scaffold-outline repeating some of his elements, in order to make a more dynamic pattern out of them. By doing so, you might imagine a conversation that goes something like:
Discovery -> Complication -> Discovery -> Reversal -> Reversal -> Reversal -> Discovery -> Complication-as-Resolution (of scene, not story)
Obviously, as you write, you’re likely to find that you’re blending the two approaches. Nothing wrong with that! They’re not mutually exclusive, and likely trying to follow one set of suggestions well will create a scene that could also fulfill the other, at least partially. In either case, once you’ve finished a first draft under one scheme, considering using the alternate one as a revision prompt: if you write a scene using the VanderMeer schema, can you label its parts using the Johnson? As you do so, if you find something is missing or underdeveloped, can you use that knowledge to make the scene better?
Because I think many writers bail on their drafts of dialogue-driven scenes earlier than they should—in part because these scenes really are so hard to write for most of us—aim to keep this one going for at least 750 words, or about three double-spaced pages. Remember that this doesn’t mean only direct dialogue for three pages. Mix in indirect and summarized dialogue, include telling actions and description for color and context, and use all your other tactics for creating compelling scenes.
Finally, if any of the above seems confusing, stop and go to your bookshelves. Get out a favorite short story and read through it, stopping to analyze every scene containing dialogue using Johnson’s schema, then VanderMeer’s. What do you see? Write it down. So often what we want to write emerges from what we love to read: your analysis of your favorite story’s dialogue can be a guidebook to writing your own.
Good luck! See you next month!
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Matt Bell’s next novel, Appleseed, is forthcoming from Custom House/William Morrow in July 2021. His craft book Refuse to Be Done, a guide to novel writing, rewriting, & revision, will follow in early 2022 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, 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.