Don’t Just Use Your Words, Part 2

In Part 1 of the craft essay “Don’t Just Use Your Words,” we first took a look at the stripped-back dialogue of Raymond Carver, where little or no thoughts are allowed to compete with the words the characters are speaking. From there, we moved on to a single sentence by Henry Green, a sentence that shows how a writer can effortlessly move from speech to thought to speech again, illustrating how easily one character can lie to another. From there, we impossibly eavesdropped on a short scene in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, where the main character, Nazneem, tries to imagine a successful way to confess to her best friend that she is enmeshed in a passionate extra-marital affair.

In those last two examples, a character’s thoughts shape a fictional dialogue at least as much, if not more, than the actual words spoken aloud.

Here, in Part 2, we will move even farther away from conversations ruled by the merely spoken, to explore the varied and unexpected ways that fictional characters can communicate (or not communicate) with each other. Techniques that are not so different from those employed by flesh-and-blood readers every single day, if we’re really honest with ourselves.

In this scene from the novel The Shape Shifter, by Tony Hillerman, the main character, Officer Joe Leaphorn of the Navaho tribal police, is speaking with Jason Delos, a rich belegaana (white) man he suspects is somehow involved with a crime of arson and insurance fraud and, possibly, murder. They begin their conversation with small talk around one of Delos’ favorite pastimes, hunting. Mentioning his intention to snag himself a “record-breaking” set of antlers, Delos says,

“Well, I can’t climb up the cliffs, and down into the canyons like I used to, but Roper has some blinds set up in the trees on a hillside up there. One of them lets you look right down on the Brazos. Elk come in, morning and evening, to get themselves a drink out of the stream. I’ve got that one reserved for next week.”

Leaphorn nodded, without comment. Ranchers who allowed deer, elk, and antelope herds to share grazing with their cattle were granted hunting permits as a recompense. They could either harvest their winter meat supply themselves or sell the permits to others. It was not a practice Leaphorn endorsed. Not much sportsmanship in it, he thought, but perfectly pragmatic and legal. Traditional Navahos hunted only for food, not for sport. He remembered his maternal uncle explaining to him that to make hunting deer a sport, you would have to give the deer rifles and teach them how to shoot back. His first deer hunt, and all that followed, had been preceded by the prescribed ceremony with his uncles and nephews, with the prayer calling to the deer to join in the venture, to assure the animal that cosmic eternal law would return him to his next existence in the infinite circle of life. A lot of time and work was involved in the Navaho way—the treatment of the deer hide, the pains taken to waste nothing, and, finally, the prayers that led to that first delicious meal of venison. Leaphorn had known many belegaana hunters who shared the “waste no venison” attitude, but none who bought into the ceremonial partnership between man and animal. And this was not the place nor the time to discuss it. Instead, he said he’d heard hunting was expected to be especially good in the Brazos country this season.

In this scene, Officer Leaphorn first responds to Delos with a nod, then continues the conversation in his mind, critiquing Delos’ form of hunting, before finally deciding to keep this to himself. The tension, the energy in this scene resides in Leaphorn’s withheld thoughts. And notice how, when Leaphorn does speak, Tony Hillerman doesn’t even grace that response with quotation marks.

How many times have we ourselves kept worlds within us, swallowed our truths or deeply held opinions for the sake of a smoothly proceeding conversation? And yet, what is not heard is indeed a part of any conversation, and is, dramatically, often the most essential part.

What I love about this next example, from the short story, “A Kitchen in the Corner of the House,” by the feminist Tamil writer Ambai, is how the author undermines from the beginning the reader’s sense that this conversation is even taking place, that perhaps this truth-telling is imagined and swallowed, not given voice.

Ambai’s short story has centered on the fraught relationship Minakshi has with Dubaribai, her mother-in-law, their battles in a male-dominated household often centering on various iron-clad rules of the kitchen. In the story’s final, and deeply moving scene, Minakshi attends to Dubaribai (“Jiji”) at what might very well be her deathbed, where a reconciliation might be possible.

Minakshi bent low to those withered earlobes wearing flower-shaped earstuds covered in pearls and brightly colored gemstones. They were alone, Jiji and she; alone as Maha Vishnu on his serpent bed floating upon the widespread sea. In that darkened room, there was a feeling like that of the cutting of an umbilical cord. We cannot be certain whether this conversation was actually started by her, or whether it happened on its own, or whether it only seemed to have occurred because she had imagined it so often. It is not even certain whether the conversation was between the two of them alone:

Jiji, no strength comes to you from that kitchen; nor from that necklace nor bangle nor headband nor forehead jewel.

Authority cannot come to you from these things.

That authority is Papaji’s.

From all that

be free

be free

be free.

But if I free myself . . . then . . . what is left?

You alone, having renounced your jewelry, your children and Papaji. Yourself, cut free. Just Dubaribai. Dubaribai alone. And from that, strength. Authority.

And when I have renounced all that, then who am I?

Find out. Dip in and see.

Dip into what?

Into your own inner well.

But there is nothing to hold on to . . . I’m frigh . . .

Dip in deeper, deeper. Find out the relationship between Dubaribai and the world.

Had there not been those three hundred chapatis to cook every day, nor those fourteen children who once kicked in your womb

If your thoughts had not been confined to mutton pulao, masala, puri-alu, dhania powder, salt, sugar, milk, oil, ghee

If you had not had these constant cares: once every four days the wick to the stove has to be pulled up; whenever kerosene is available it has to be bought and stored; in the rainy season the rice has to be watched and the dal might be full of insects; pickles must be made in the mango season; when the fruit is ripe it will be time for sherbet, juice, and jam; old clothes can be bartered for new pots and pans; once a fortnight the drainage areas in the kitchen must be spread with lime; if one’s periods come it will be a worry; if they don’t come it will be a worry.

If all this clutter had not filed up the drawers of your mind.

Perhaps you too might have seen the apple fall; the steam gathering at the kettle’s spout; might have discovered new continents; written a poem while sitting uipon Mount Kailasam. Might have painted upon the walls of caves. Might have flown. Might have made a world without wars, prisons, gallows, chemical warfare.

Where did you go away, Jiji?

How could you think that

your strength came

from food that was given in the appropriate measure

and jewelry that weighs down ears and neck and forehead?

Sink deeper still

when you touch bottom you will reach the universal waters. You will connect yourself with the world that surrounds you.

Your womb and your breasts will fall away from you. The smell of cooking will vanish away. The sparkle of jewelry will disappear. And there will be you. Not trapped nor diminished by gender, but freed.

So touch the waters, Jiji

And rise



Jiji turned, searched for, and held fast to Minakshi’s hand.


And now we move from these first two examples, of a conversation where hidden thoughts overwhelmed, statistically, the words actually spoken, and a deathbed conversation that may have been imagined but never spoken, to a conversation that never could have occurred, between two people distant in time, place and circumstance, a conversation that, though it never occurred, probably should have,

The narrator of the novel Glyph, by Percival Everett, is a baby. But the book isn’t filled with goo-goo’s and gaa-gaa’s, because this narrator is a baby genius, a truly pint-sized wunderkind, able to out-equation the best adult mathematician. But math isn’t his only strength. He also likes to imagine conversations between people who have never spoken with each other, but probably should have. My favorite is the baby narrator’s canny imagined conversation between the French literary critic Roland Barthes, and the writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston:

Barthes: Do you remember when those felt-tipped pens first showed up on the shelves? I couldn’t wait to get home and try it out. They were made by the Japanese as well and if they’ll use them to write…

Hurston: I was dead by then. But also, who cares?

Barthes: But don’t you see? I’m talking about the action of writing. The gesture itself defines so much of the meaning, don’t you think? I mean, even where I sit while I’m engaged in writing shapes my import.

Hurston: What have you been smoking?

Barthes: I have even observed what I call a “Bic style” of writing. You’ve seen it, those people who just churn out words endlessly.

Hurston (nodding): I do believe I have seen it.

Barthes: I finally discarded the felt tip because the tip flattened out so soon. I’m back now to, and I think I’ll stay with, truly fine fountain pens. They’re essential for the kind of smooth writing I require. What do you use?

Hurston: A sharpened bone and blood.

Who hasn’t imagined a conversation between two people besides ourselves (our parents, perhaps, or two estranged friends), and assigned them the words that they could and should speak to each other but probably never would? Even impossible exchanges can be spoken, if only in our minds.

Perhaps writers are sometimes unconsciously influenced by the out-loudness of characters in plays, television programs and movies. Thought is rarely “heard” in these narrative genres, but that is a reflection of the limitations of visual narrative. In books, we can indeed hear the thoughts of the fictional people who move on the page. How those deep wells of words interact with the words that are allowed to escape willing or reluctant lips is a nearly limitless territory, worthy of a lifetime of exploration.

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December 27th, 2022 by admin

Don’t Just Use Your Words, Part 1

Dialogue should be simple to write, shouldn’t it? After all, one character speaks, then another responds, and so on, just like in “real” life. We know how to do that, because we speak with other people every day.

But it’s not so simple, and neither are the conversations we have in “real” life.

Before examining any literary examples, let’s think a bit about how everyday people (that’s us) actually speak to each other. First, we cough up a lot of ummms, don’t we? Those wordless hesitations are never far away when we try to spit out what we mean to say (or to avoid saying). Sometimes, even often, we don’t speak grammatically. Also, we may go so far as to speak over each other, or interrupt. Occasionally we don’t even complete our sentences. These commonplace conversational features rarely make it to the literary page, where characters, if they aren’t always eloquent, are at least able to express themselves with a certain calculated clarity.

What do I mean by a “calculated” clarity? Well, in any given conversation, when someone is speaking to you, what are you doing in your patient silence?

Are you indeed listening closely, or are you only half listening, already plotting what you’re going to say in response? And when you finally get your conversational turn at bat, what do you think your partner is doing—hanging breathlessly on your every word, or are they too silently composing their own impending response?

And do you always say out loud the words you have been silently composing, or was that planning a form of revising—should I say this, you think, or that? If I say this, will my friend be insulted? If I say that, will my friend be flattered, or think I’m a nicer person? In a sense, as we’re “listening” to someone else, we’re practicing the art of fiction, revising, honing and shaping what we will say next. And your partner is doing the same thing. The “out loud” part of any conversation, on both sides, has first been thoroughly workshopped.

I would go so far as to say that in any conversation, the unspoken words far outnumber the words that eventually make the cut. Spoken words are the tip of the conversational iceberg as we present our fictional social selves.

Yet even if we remain silent, that doesn’t mean we have no words to speak. As Nobel-prize winning novelist José Saramago has observed:

“The eloquent silence, long favored by a particularly lazy kind of literature, does not exist, eloquent silences are just words that have got stuck in the throat, choked words that have been unable to escape the embrace of the glottis.”

We all can indeed be silently eloquent in such moments, as we suppress words that must be and must never be spoken.

If it comes as a surprise that any conversation—including its occasional pauses—contains mostly unspoken words, it’s because humans are too often fooled by the exterior world. We think, if we can hear or see something, then that is what mainly exists. But most of the world runs on invisible fuel, the fuel of our vast interior worlds that in turn shape the world we think we know.

That’s why, if we are sitting, say, in a booth in a diner, and we “accidentally” overhear a conversation (otherwise known as eavesdropping) in another booth, part of the thrill of that surreptitious experience is that we are not hearing the whole story. Because our ears have jumped in on the fly, we can be sure that the words we’re listening to cannot be the whole story, they’re just a hint of the couple’s long-term context. What we are listening to is rich with mystery, and those words we shouldn’t be listening to become a challenge to our curiosity. We try to fill in the blanks.

But we don’t merely listen and revise our words inside, we also observe our conversational partner. Sometimes, the words our friend may speak are at odds with their body language or their tone of voice. The director Alfred Hitchcock has offered some insight on the visual aspects of any conversation:

“One of your characters will be preoccupied with something during a dialogue scene. Their eyes can then be distracted while the other person doesn’t notice. This is a good way to pull the audience into a character’s secretive world. People don’t always express their inner thoughts to one another. A conversation may be quite trivial, but often the eyes will reveal what a person thinks or needs. The focus of a scene should never be on what the characters are actually saying. Have something else going on. Resort to dialogue only when its impossible to do otherwise. In other words, we don’t have pages to fill . . . we have a rectangular screen in a movie house.”

Film is, of course, a visual narrative form, dependent on the employment of visual cues. But writers do have pages to fill, and we can employ any number of tactics in the writing of dialogue. There is no ideal form of presenting dialogue in fiction, no best way to capture a character’s outer voice on the page that will, in turn, hint at that character’s inner life. The various approaches in literature are nearly limitless, from the minimalist “Only the words spoken out loud” to the maximalist “words spoken while jockeying with the silent words of thought.” Available in-between are depictions of physical gestures and facial features that either underline what one says or contradict it. And any combination of the above. And let’s not forget about the conversations people create alone, in their own minds, or the conversation we remember from the past, or the conversations we quietly anticipate speaking in the future.

Before looking at some specific literary examples, let’s remember this: there is no such thing as a private dialogue between two people in fiction. Because there’s always someone else in the room. Two other people, actually: the author, and the reader.

The reader is always put in the position of eavesdropping (there’s that word again) on whoever is speaking in a fiction, while the author decides just how much the reader is allowed to overhear. Just the words? OK. Or perhaps also the thoughts of one of the characters? Fine. Or the words and the thoughts of both characters? Done. Each level of added access deepens the fictional world’s possibilities. There are no rules here—any author is in charge of how much the nosy reader can overhear, and how much access will be available to the silent words of any dialogue. The writer decides the boundaries, and the reader can then explore within those boundaries.

Let’s start with a particularly stripped back approach, from the story “Why Don’t You Dance?” by Raymond Carver. In the aftermath of an apparently failed marriage, a despairing man has emptied his house of its furniture and set up the various pieces in the front yard and driveway, in much the same arrangements they were in when still inside.

A young couple drives by, and, because they are in the middle of furnishing “a little apartment,” they stop at what they think is a yard sale. The young man first examines the TV, the young woman tries out the bed.

He sat down on the sofa to watch. He lit a cigarette, looked around, flipped the match into the grass.
The girl sat on the bed. She pushed off her shoes and lay back. She thought she could see a star.
“Come here, Jack. Try this bed. Bring one of those pillows,” she said.
“How is it?” he said.
“Try it,” she said.
He looked around. The house was dark.
“I feel funny,” he said. “Better see if anybody’s home.”
She bounced on the bed.
“Try it first,” she said.
He lay down on the bed and put the pillow under his head.
“How does it feel?” she said.
“It feels firm,” he said.
She turned on her side and put her hand to his face.
“Kiss me,” she said.
“Let’s get up,” he said.
“Kiss me,” she said.
She closed her eyes. She held him.
He said, “I’ll see if anybody’s home.”

We can learn a lot about these two characters by the words they say—or rather, by the disparity of the words they say to each other. The “girl” (otherwise unnamed) bouncing on the bed, offers a kind of seduction to the more cautious Jack, who hesitantly accedes to her overtures. She ignores his discomfort until he breaks away. Though there’s little access to their thoughts, already we can see the differences between them, Jack’s reluctance contrasted with the young woman’s more daring impulses, and we can guess who cares more for the other and who cares less, and we can predict, perhaps, the course of their own future failed relationship. The pleasure of this stripped-back approach is akin to—there’s that word again—eavesdropping. If we pay attention and read between the lines, we will be rewarded.

I have to say, I prefer the approach of the English writer Henry Green. In a scene from his novel Caught, the characters Richard and Hilly are sitting together in a London pub during a lull in the World War II bombing attacks. There’s a decent chance they might end up sleeping with each other. Richard asks Hilly a not-so-innocent question, and Green, in a single, elegant sentence, seamlessly blends the truth of Hilly’s thoughts with the falsity of her response:

“Was I?” she said, remembering perfectly, “I forget.”

The moment goes by so quickly you almost don’t notice it (and is there a single person on the face of this earth who hasn’t misrepresented themselves in a similar fashion?).

Here, the reader’s eavesdropping is more intimate. With quicksilver rapidity, we can hear Hilly’s contradictory thought as well as her words, while Richard cannot. In other parts of this dialogue, we hear Richard’s words and also his thoughts, to which Hilly has no access. The pleasure here is that we know more about the two characters than they can possibly know of each other (because of course they can’t read each other’s thoughts), and this is an irresistible insider’s experience that we can never replicate in our everyday lives.

It’s easy to take this literary insider experience a step further, because in our everyday lives we often create imaginary conversations with non-present others, dialogues that we try on in anticipation of—or in substitution for—actual eventual conversations.

A good example can be found in Monica Ali’s novel Brick Lane. The main character, Nazneem, is having an affair that, so far, she has manged to keep secret. Yet increasingly she wants to reveal this dangerous secret to her most trusted friend, Razia. So Nazneem imagines a few approaches to this possible confession, and she envisions Razia responding not with words but with telling physical gestures.

A few times [Nazneem] had imagined conversations with Razia. She played them out, reading both parts, trying a new phrase here and there. He will never give me up. Razia tucking her feet under her bottom and leaning over to squeeze all the juice out of the story. It consumes us. It’s not something we can control. Razia shaking her shoulders; the intensity, even at this remove—enough to make her shiver. The most astonishing thing of all . . . She never knew what she would say then, but the phrase kept coming to her. With narrowed eyes and her sideways look, Razia attempted to tease it from her. The most astonishing thing of all . . .

Perhaps, with practice, Nazneem will shape this imaginary conversation so well that she might finally attempt to initiate it. Or perhaps not. How many imaginary conversations with family members or friends, on whatever subject, have we ourselves practiced, only to leave them (reluctantly or with relief) on the conversational cutting room floor, never to be spoken?

As I’ve mentioned earlier, there are seemingly endless variations on how dialogue can be written, and in Part 2 of this craft essay, we’ll take a look at examples that range even further beyond the basic structure of two characters simply facing each other and speaking only aloud.

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December 13th, 2022 by admin