Hello and welcome to the 100 Day Writing Challenge, Day 37.
Now one of the areas we haven’t really touched on yet is dialogue. I’ve tried to get us to approach it slyly, via the realm of voice, and narrators, but the novel, as a form, is inherently polyvocal. It’s a dialectic, a multitude of voices speaking with, across and against each other.
The simplest way to bring that out is to have two characters talk to each other. We’ve already started that process with your endlessly recursive meeting, but I’d like to move on to something new, and really drill down into the detail of the craft.
One of my favourite things in great dialogue is indirectness.
Characters ask questions without asking questions. They change the subject without saying ‘I don’t want to answer that’. Bids are made and accepted, topics offered and refused.
Consider an exchange where the detective protagonist has gone to visit a potential suspect at their flat. The detective stands in the front room and glances around:
‘Must be nice having a place all to yourself. Bachelor pad.’
To which the suspect replies: ‘Let me fix you that tea.’
No explicit question was asked here. No direct refusal made. The detective’s statement ‘Must be nice having a place all to yourself,’ offers several potential topics: the suspect’s living alone, his relationship status, how happy he is with his life. And the response, though on the surface very mild, ‘Let me fix you that tea,’ is quite an aggressive rejection of the offer. The suspect is not willing to discuss any of those things. He’s flatly changing the topic.
So here’s what you’re going to do. For this exercise, you’re writing about someone visiting someone else. Someone they want something from. This someone might be someone they know very well, someone they haven’t seen in a long time, or someone they’re only just meeting. Could be an item, could be money, might be information – it might be approval or affection or respect or an apology. They might meet at that person’s house, or at a café, in the woods, resurrected in a dream, wherever. Your protagonist has lots of questions. But maybe, for whatever reason, they don’t always feel comfortable asking them. Maybe they have a strong emotional connection to this person. Maybe there’s an unusual power dynamic. Maybe they don’t want to tip their hand too early.
So you’re going to write this scene, and your protagonist is going to have lots of questions, and I want them to ask some of those questions, but – crucially – without using any questions. I don’t want a single question mark. So, instead of asking questions, they’re going to use what in the world of improv are known as offers. These are like prompts that introduce a topic, make some reference to the reality of the environment around them, toss a ball to the other speaker for them to catch and toss back.
They might observe: ‘You have a lot of sculptures.’ Which the other person might subconsciously interpret as the question ‘Why do you have all these sculptures?’ to which they might reply: ‘I started collecting them after the company went public. Needed a hobby.’
‘Expensive hobby,’ says your protagonist.
‘Always thinking ahead.’
Now none of these are exact analogues for questions – they introduce conversational topics, they hide subtle challenges or rebukes.
For your scene, feel free to chuck in description and dialogue beats, he said, she said, what they’re doing as they talk, descriptions of their environment, etc. Don’t worry too much where it’s going. Feel rather than think your way through. Let them reveal themselves.
So, one person going to visit someone else, they want something from this person, they have lots of questions but neither character is allowed to directly ask a question. See what happens to the dialogue, see if you can help them tease out information without ever asking for it.
Right. Deep breath. Let the experiment begin.
And that’s it. How was that for you? A lot to deal with, right? But hopefully, at the very least it got you thinking about dialogue in a new way.
I want to talk about this a bit more tomorrow because having constraints like we talked about before doesn’t just work for narrative, it works for dialogue too. It turns out we all talk all the time with a bunch of restrictions! Wow. Mind blown.
In any case, let’s save that for tomorrow. Go, drink some water. Rest. Be proud of yourself.