MFA Nugget: Is Your Dialogue Scintillating?

WARNING: At the bottom of this post I have retyped the result of a writing exercise I authored an hour ago. My sincerest apologies.

You hold the rejection letter in your hand, wondering why the editor didn’t rush to publish your short story. Your opening was like a bundle of firecrackers. Your plot was written to sink into the reader with a vice-like grip.

How was your dialogue?

Nance Van Winckel, poet, fiction writer, and lover of scintillating dialogue.

Vermont College of Fine Arts instructor Nance Van Winckel revealed yesterday at a lecture on dialogue here at our MFA in Writing residency that, as a literary journal editor, she found herself skipping straight for passages of dialogue in the submissions. It was a way to cope with the trash bag of manuscripts she’d take home with her each weekend. (Van Winckel made clear the bag was not symbolic of her view of the manuscripts; the bag was necessary due to the volume of submissions, as well as her desire to keep them physically separate from the student papers she would take home in her briefcase.)

If the dialogue was flat, unbelievable, or inauthentic, she didn’t bother to read that dynamite opening, or expose herself to that compelling plot. She put the manuscript in the “reject” pile and moved on. She then learned that many other editors do the same thing.

Ouch.

Dialogue “needs to be interesting in and of itself,” she said. Getting there can take many revisions, and there are many means to add interest. She noted the standard lessons on dialogue–it can advance plot, develop characters, and convey mood or key information. But she noted other things that speak to her (my pun, not hers) in dialogue.

She likes it when characters don’t stay on track, because in dialogue characters have their own agendas. This “disjunction” can spark with life. She likes it when a writer drops a profound insight or inner-dialogue reveal smack in the middle of a dialogue discourse. She likes it when the dialogue implies much that is not being said.

She also gave some examples of authors with what she called “scintillating” dialogue: Chris Offutt (“Melungeons”), Jane Mendelsohn (“I Was Amelia Earhart”), Alice Elliot (“In the Gloaming Dark”), Richard Ford (“Sweethearts”), Bobbie Ann Mason (“Offerings”), Amy Hempel (“In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried”), Ray Carver (“Gazeloo”), Ben Marcus (“The Flame Alphabet”), Ron Carlson (“Blazo”), Charles D’ambrosio (“The Point”), and Alice Munro (“The Kids Stay”).

Abby Frucht, novelist, short story writer, non-fiction writer, and expert muse wrangler.

VCFA instructor Abby Frucht gave a follow-up lecture on dialogue the next morning. She added two more authors–Glen Duncan (“The Last Werewolf”) and Gustave Flaubert (“A Sentimental Education”)–but focused her time on a writing exercise. It was brilliant.

I will not replicate the exercise here–as Frucht notes in the handout, “please remember that it is the author’s intellectual property”–but I will note that she encouraged us to find ways to combine crisp passages of dialogue with framing sentences depicting physical details of character and place, and broader emotional contexts.

I am not a big fan of creative writing exercises. I am not sure why. I think it’s because I never really encountered them until recently, as a middle-aged writer who in his past has focused on journalistic prose. I feel disadvantaged, scribbling in my notebook next to writers who devoured creative writing courses in high school and college. They understand the art that is a creative writing exercise. And, I will confess, I considered slipping out of the lecture hall when Frucht said it was time to begin the exercise. But the doors to the College Hall Chapel are solid wood doors that have warped into each other over the decades; there is no way to open one discreetly.

So I reminded myself that I have been a wire reporter and a blogger, expected to turn around copy on short deadlines. I gave the exercise a try, and Frucht was amazing, guiding me to places my muse never would have thought to venture.

And thus, I am inflicting upon you the result of that exercise. I’ve put a dashed line between it and this post, to make it easier for you to skip over it and head straight to the comments.

What priority do you give dialogue in your prose?

——————————————————————————————-

I lean back on the the bed against the stack of pillows I have constructed, once again regretting not bringing my own on this trip. This is my chance, I think. Tomorrow morning I will take her to the Savannah airport and send her back home, to her mother, to her teenage life. I will press on, for weeks, alone with my rental car and my regrets.

“You heard what Meghan said. You need to get those grades up.”

Her reply is soft, almost drowned out by the rattling air-conditioning unit that is losing its battle against a muggy Southern summer.

“You think I’m not trying?”

The rumbling of a diesel engine forces its way through the thin motel wall. A beam from a headlight pierces the slit between the window’s blackout curtains, painting ever so briefly an arc of illumination across the faded olive bedspread. The beam passes just over my daughter, curled up on the floor against the side of the bed. The light misses me entirely.

“I think sometimes you allow yourself to fall short of your potential,” I say.

She tosses her head back, a long blue strand of hair flying away to reveal an equally blue left eye, now fixed upon me.

“You sound just like Mom,” she says, her voice louder now. “If I get a C, she wants a B. If I get a B, she wants an A.”

I stand up and walk over to where she is sitting on the stained brown carpet. I look down on her as I lean against the corner of the scratched veneer nightstand.

“When have you ever gotten a B?”

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

15 Responses to “MFA Nugget: Is Your Dialogue Scintillating?”

  1. Great post, Patrick. So interesting to know that editors/agents, etc. might be using this same technique to weed through the slush pile. And I LOVE the list of suggested books to study for their stellar dialogue. I agree – it’s so important to good storytelling. And as a reader, you seem to instinctively know when it’s BAD. When it’s GOOD, you seem to just devour it and turn the page.

    • Hi Melissa! These bits are tracing their way from the Vermont mountains to your Sonoran Desert home.

      I will confess I haven’t given enough thought to dialogue in my own prose. I like what you say about BAD and GOOD, like the old Supreme Court phrase defining porn, the easiest way to define it is you know it when you see it. Same with bad dialogue, I guess!

  2. I struggle with dialogue… sometimes I feel like I just can’t hear it, or if I get the words, I can’t capture the details around it and I’m left with talking heads. Reading aloud seems to help, though, and this list of great dialogue artists will help, too. I’m taking it straight to the library. Thanks! And thanks also for sharing your exercise – great dialogue!

    • Ah, good point about reading it aloud. I blogged on that from the winter residency, although it was about reading aloud all of your prose. It most certainly helps with dialogue. I do not do that enough, but I’m always amazed at how helpful it is.

      Have fun at the library! I’d note some of those on the list or short stories, so you’ll have to figure out what anthology they’re published in.

      Glad you liked the exercise!🙂

  3. One of my takeaways from Van Winckel’s comments about dialogue is that it should crackle with surprise. My favorite moments in film and TV are when a character says something completely unexpected. It causes you to take notice and forces you to think, to be engaged. How could they say that? Why would they say that? What were they thinking? I think the urge to make dialogue “realistic” can suck the life out of it.

    • “Crackle with surprise.” I like that! Yes, I think in dialogue it can be easy to glaze over it, either in print or on film. You catch me by surprise, I’ll pay more attention the next time. It does engage your mind and your emotions. Maybe “realistic” isn’t realistic, not really.

  4. Wow, good to know that editors may skip right to the dialogue. Yikes!

    I’m also glad to have this list of stories that use great dialogue. I’m getting ready to teach a creative writing class so this is useful (and yes, I’m going to inflict the students with MANY writing exercises. But they’re young, so I think they’ll like it).

    By the way, I love your result. You’re resistant to this kind of stuff? Really? You’re so good at it! My initial scribbles in response to writing prompts are never so coherent and brimming with possibility! Good job!

    Thanks for these MFA nuggets. Makes it a little less painful to be so far away from residency. Enjoy!

    • My reaction exactly, Sion! Yikes!

      Have fun with the list; remember several of them are short stories, which might be better for your class.

      And thank you for your kind words on the exercise result. I actually was one of the students who decided to read it aloud. When I’m at VCFA I take any risk I can, because I’m so hungry to grow. I was pleased that it was well-received!🙂 Abby said it “flowed,” even though I held up my notebook and saw that “flow” had scribbles all over the page, with arrows directing me around to the various lines. (Should have brought a laptop!)

  5. Hi Patrick!
    Really enjoyed this and I agree with Sion – you’re good at this ‘stuff’! I think it’s really interesting you didn’t bring a laptop. I’d be curious to hear how your experience goes with your writing without it for the limited time.

    So many great insights from these nuggets. Thanks for taking the extra time to prepare and post them.

    • Ah, I’m blushing, Carole Jane!

      I brought a laptop to residency (typing on it right now) but I don’t bring it to lectures. Each residency I buy a new composition book and use the same fountain pen. This residency’s book is hard-bound with a compass rose pressed into the faux-leather. I like the feel of it, and the flow of the pen across the paper. I put everything in it, not just notes, but inspirations, musings, etc. I’m not a journal keeper, but this would be close to that.

  6. That’s a great nugget–that editors skip right to the dialogue. I’m pretty good with it, but I find that the best dialogue comes through rewriting. The first time through is almost a place-holder, letting me know what has to come out through dialogue. Next time through I can hone it so it sounds natural.

    • Good point, Charlotte. Nance–who did not conduct the writing exercise–said that revision was always the path to good dialogue. Given her interest in the unconventional, I would think your place-holder technique would be where most writers would have to begin.

  7. One thing I’ve been seeing is folks stuffing backstroy into dialogue. This never works well since it comes across stiff and flat — there’s no emotion in rehashing setup. And it’s easy to fix — characters need to come into scenes wanting something, and dialogue is their way to negotiate and manipulate for that thing (sometimes passive aggressive, sometimes compromising, sometimes just aggressive, and sometimes switching modes). If you always know what a character is trying to get, you can put in terrific subtext and have lots more going on in your dialogue.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. MFA Nugget: An Entire MFA in Writing Residency in One Post « The Artist's Road - July 8, 2012

    […] Is Your Dialogue Scintillating? June 29, 2012. […]

  2. Get Ready for another MFA Brain Dump | The Artist's Road - November 13, 2012

    […] MFA NUGGET — IS YOUR DIALOGUE SCINTILLATING? […]

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