Deb: Wise Words – Janet Fitch on Dialogue

talk all the time. So what’s so hard about dialogue? In a lecture titled
“Riding a Unicycle While Spinning Plates” (2011 Squaw Valley Writers Workshop),
author Janet Fitch discussed the ways in which something so seemingly
straightforward can go oh-so-wrong.
first rule of good dialogue, Fitch says, is compression. She points out that
while most real life talk is intended to avert conflict, the purpose of
dialogue in narrative is to reveal conflict, to bring people to the point where
they’re trying to do something to each other, as in a wrestling match. Emerging
writers too often use dialogue for exposition or backstory, or they fill the
page with useless chit-chat. “If people agree, they don’t need to talk,” Fitch
says. “Only generic people speak generically. If anyone could say it, no one
should say it. Every line should be a million dollar line, or get rid of it.”
the wrestling analogy, Fitch notes how speakers in narrative often circle like
wrestlers, looking for an opening. That means they won’t always come in from
the front. In good narrative dialogue, each person comes from a different
perspective, bringing needs, wants and desires in relation to the others.
Interrupting and trailing off are ways that characters are revealed. “Rarely do
people get to finish what they mean to say,” Fitch notes.
also reminds writers that dialogue is always part of a scene that demands
fresh, specific details. “Set up the scene for someone to say something
specific and interesting,” she recommends. “Set it up so you see who’s
stronger. Who will the reader put their money on? There’s always a winner.”
dialogue, Fitch says, marches down the page without regard for gesture, vocal
tone, or facial expression. “Line after line of vocalization means you’re
missing the interior world and the landscape,” she says. Beyond dialogue, the
scene should include exposition plus ongoing description of the characters and
their reactions. And don’t forget landscape. “As they speak, people still have
contact with the physical world,” Fitch says. “When people stop speaking,
there’s ambient sound.”
also reminds writers that dialogue is not deposition. Characters gain advantage
by not answering, lying, playing mind games, or through counter attack. Like a
good boxer, a character should never respond as her opponent expects. “If it
doesn’t surprise, don’t write it,” Fitch says. Neither does dialogue have to be
linear, Fitch reminds her audience. The narration can shift inside a character
and back into the scene.
best dialogue comes from people who know each other well, Fitch points out.
Years of backstory are implied, and conflict is easy to raise. “The better you
know each other, the less you have to explain,” she says. “Either the reader
will keep up or she’ll be piqued to read on. Writing is seduction: reply
obliquely; allow a mystery.”
a spot-on example of Fitch’s dialogue principles, consider this from Jennifer
Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, a brief dialogue scene involving Rolph and
his older sister Charlie, on safari with their father and his girlfriend Mindy:

and Rolph lie together under a palm tree. Charlie disdains the red Danskin
one-piece she chose with her mother for this trip and decides she will borrow a
pair of sharp scissors from the front desk and cut it into a bikini.
never want to go home,” she says sleepily.
miss Mom,” Rolph says. His father and Mindy are swimming. He can see the
glitter of her swimsuit through the pale water.
if Mom could come.”
doesn’t love her anymore,” Rolph says. “She’s not crazy enough.”
that supposed to mean?”
shrugs. “You think he loves Mindy?”
way. He’s tired of Mindy.”
if Mindy loves him?”
cares?” Charlie says. “They all love him.”
million dollar lines are simple, their value amassed by who says them and how
they’re presented. They do everything good dialogue should. There’s landscape
and gesture. We weave inside Charlie and Rolph and back out again. These kids
don’t agree, and they don’t come in from the front – they riff on each other to
get at what matters most to each of them. They disagree over their mother, and over
Mindy, and over what love means when it involves their father. Charlie wins
this round, getting in the last word on Dad. The scene illustrates beautifully
how conflict can be rich and deep without necessarily being strung tight. The
lines spoken by these children manage to simultaneously reveal their innocence
and their depth of understanding.
This Out: Fitch wrote her breakout novel White Oleander after a stint at
Squaw Valley. She was getting rejections but didn’t know why until she figured
out that there’s good enough, and then there’s something else. What is it you
can’t see about your writing? That’s the challenge she poses to writers.
This: To enrich your dialogue scenes, Fitch recommends keeping a notebook of
gestures, facial expressions, and vocal qualities. Watch TV with the sound off
to discover how gestures convey meaning and reveal conflict. Pay attention to
people in meetings. How do they move? How do they laugh? Describe their vocal
quality, using musical terms. Note how gestures underscore and how they
contradict what is said.

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