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Dialogues That Reveal Relationships

I am by no means an expert on writing; I wouldn’t dare claim to be anything above novice at this point in my journey. This being the case, I hesitate to give advice on the craft of writing. I mean, who am I? I’m just some chick hanging out in her Happy Bunny PJs at noon on a Saturday eating boiled oat bran (OK, it’s a chocolate chip scone, but don’t tell my diet) and editing her second manuscript–the first of which is still, post-print, littered with errors in both grammar and judgement. Frankly, I’m contemplating tossing this laptop in the trash and doing what non-writers do all day. Whatever that is. 

<What I assume non-writers do all day behind my back>

I will give a bit of advice today, because if it helps even one beginner, then yippee. Keep in mind, taking writerly advice from me might be as wise as making financial decisions based on a consultation with that hobo outside the bank, but here goes.

I think dialogue between two characters should strive to highlight not only the action around them, but their personal reactions to one another, the ebb and flow of their relationship. Is it new and awkward, or old and comfortable? Are they just learning about one another, or well aware of the undercurrents? Tension? Reliability? Trust? Passion? Amusement? How to show these things without telling? Using this passage from “Death Rejoices”:

I found my Cold Company already at the machine, whisking me some foam and pulling his cinnamon duster from the overhead cabinet. You could set your watch by Harry’s butler-like service; he felt my need and minutes later there was espresso brewing. Hard to find fault with that.

I tried my flex and finger gun routine on him. Harry cocked his head, the piercings in his eyebrow twitching. “Did you have a lovely lesson?”

“Grab my wrist, Harry.”

“Certainly not, you stink of filth.”

“Don’t be a priss.” I shoved my arm in his face. “Grab me and see what happens.”

He watched me for a beat, then obliged; his cool hand landed on my wrist with unearthly strength, clamping down, a python’s unhurried squeeze. After a brief hollering protest, I twisted like Hood showed me. Nothing happened. My hand started turning purple. I twisted outward again, grunting. Harry studied me impassively.

“I’m supposed to be able to get out,” I told him.

“I see. Sheriff Hood has much work to do.”

“If you weren’t an immortal, I’d have freed my hand by now and punched you right in the schnozzle.”

“Assuredly, you would have done,” he allowed graciously and released me. 

What sorts of clues does this conversation offer up about Marnie and Harry’s relationship? (1) The way she approaches him shows she’s clearly not afraid of him. She could have asked, “would it be ok if I tried something with you?” if she were uncertain, but instead she shoves her arm at him and insists. (2) She seeks his approval. She could have told him she learned a new trick and left it at that, but she feels the need to demonstrate. She’s hoping to impress him, to get that pat on the head. And (3) though Harry remains unmoved by her attempts, he humours her. He makes it clear he’d prefer not to (“certainly not, you stink of filth”) but acquiesces–whether to please her or to shut her up, I’ll let you decide. It’s a comfortable relationship, though, in which he is the cool, resigned, dominant figure, and she is the ridiculous little hot-head.

I love fleshing out characters and relationships between them. Probably, I spend too much time doing this when I should be telling the story. Someday a critic will tell me so, and hopefully I’ll have a more mature retort than “Oh YA, doodyhead? Well, you smell like old Band Aids.” (word for word, without a doubt, exactly what will come out of my mouth.)

A good exercise for young writers (and by that, I mean people of any age who are beginning to write, or hoping to learn more about their craft) is to read snippits of dialogue from your favourite books and deconstruct them. What about that conversation revealed the relationship? How did that author show you so much without telling you directly? How did the author point you to clues by using banter, mood, rapport? How can you use the same techniques to reveal important undercurrents, highlight a subplot, make the characters seem richer, more complex, more human?

An author should never have to say “she was afraid of him.” Show this, or any other development, by the manner in which they approach one another, the word choices they make–get down to the grit, hard words vs. soft, active vs. passive, pick and choose until it feels best– and what they decide to say or not; sometimes the things left unsaid reveal more about their personality, degree of acquaintance, comfort level or the brewing strength of the subplot than what they do say. This should be a well choreographed dance. Hear the conversation in your head before you place it on paperspace, then pluck the overly obvious bits and trust the reader; if you’ve done it right, the reader will be able to read between the lines.

Now, there’s a pretty good chance I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about.

<I’m the girl they make signs like this for>

Writing is playtime and I’m under the desk eating paste (don’t tell my diet). If any of the above helps, great! Let me know. I’ll be over here mowing through a sleeve of Fig Newtons (don’t tell my diet) and trying to figure out what the hell is wrong with the middle of Book 2.

(editor’s note: WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU THINKING? Do not take advice from this woman! Do you always trust chicks who pop out from behind trees?? Is that what you do, you wander around with questions waiting for some weirdo to pop out from behind a tree? What the crap is wrong with you? Look at that maniacal grin! Don’t you think she’s up to something? This woman delights in leading people astray. She will do so on purpose, just so she can sit back and giggle about it. She’s like an evil fai–no, wait, what are those evil little dudes in Willow? Brownies? Brownies! She’s a brownie!–shit, I could really go for a brownie right now. What time is it? I’ve got the munch–wait, what was I saying? Oh right. Good Lord, people, have some sense! Take writing advice from AJ Aalto and you might as well just flush your career down the toilet right now.)

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One Response to Dialogues That Reveal Relationships

  1. Rik Davnall says:

    In fairness, taking financial advice from the hobo outside the bank has about the same success rate as taking financial advice from the world’s top financial advisors… 😉

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