WHAT NOT TO SAY

Last weekend I did a one-day seminar on Living Dialog, based on a previous blog post of the same name. For three hours we talked about writing dialog that meets some challenging criteria. For me, “Living Dialog” has to be at once brilliantly vivid, perfectly crafted, exactly appropriate, layered and nuanced, and most of all it just needs to sound right.

Tall order, I know.

And that’s something it’ll take more than three hours or a couple of blog posts to learn. But let’s break this down to smaller components and start building some expertise.

One of the things I tend to harp on with creative writers in all media is the idea of “business.” These are the little actions that take place within a scene—specifically, things that characters do (rather than say) that don’t rise to the level of “action” but that reveal something about that character.

The example I often (if not always) cite is a moment in the movie Boogie Nights in which Scotty, played by the extraordinarily talented Philip Seymour Hoffman, is getting Mark Wahlberg (as Dirk Diggler) ready for his first big scene. Scotty has a crush on Dirk, and gets nervous and flustered around him. This comes across in the way he speaks, but also in one terrific bit of “business” that director Paul Thomas Anderson sort of makes fun of in the DVD commentary. While Scotty is walking through the set with Dirk, he’s holding a clipboard, and there’s a pen stuck on the clipboard. Between breathless lines of dialog Scotty clicks the pen open and closed with his teeth—click click click.

We should all be so lucky as to have this cast.

We should all be so lucky as to have this cast.

This is what I mean by “business” as opposed to “action.” The “action” in the scene is this walk from the dressing room to the set. This tiny little added nuance, this little twitch, adds a layer to Scotty’s giddy nervousness. He’s afraid to say how he really feels and this frustration shows in this nervous twitch. This is brilliant, and according to the DVD commentary, was something that Philip Seymour Hoffman brought to the scene—it wasn’t in the script.

That’s one of the many big differences between writing for the screen (or the stage) and writing prose fiction (novels or short stories). Your novel will be reinterpreted, reimagined, by each individual reader, but there is no cast and director to bring them those little nuances. That’s something you have to provide. So if you were writing that scene in a novel, you should mention Scotty clicking the pen with his teeth as he speaks. This bit of business says—without actually saying it—“look how nervous Scotty is.”

Remember that old advice: Show, don’t tell.

If you describe Scotty “nervously clicking his pen because he didn’t know how to tell Dirk how he really felt,” you’re fast-forwarding your reader through the experience of discovery and right to a conclusion. This is much less interesting to read than simply stating that Scotty is doing this thing, and allowing your readers the freedom and joy of discovery: Oh, he’s nervous. I do stuff like that when I’m nervous and afraid to say something. Now Scotty has come alive rather than simply being described.

Here’s a terrific example from his masterpiece The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami:

At this point in his story, Lieutenant Mamiya looked at his watch. “And as you can see,” he added softly, “here I am.” He shook his head as if trying to sweep away the invisible threads of memory. “Just as Mr. Honda had said, I did not die on the continent. And of the four of us who went there, I have lived the longest.”

I nodded in response.

“Please forgive me for talking on at such length. It must have been very boring for you, listening to a useless old man chatter on about the old days.” Lieutenant Mamiya shifted his position on the sofa. “My goodness, I’ll be late for my train if I stay any longer.”

Here is a serious man, who is Japanese, so comes from a much more formal, much more personally reserved society than ours. He’s been telling our narrator a very personal, tragic, and difficult-to-relive story. Murakami allows us to watch as Lieutenant Mamiya squirms. He looks at his watch. He shakes his head—the reason for that gesture guessed at by the narrator. Note that the narrator then nods in response. Quick tip: A lot of great dialog is no dialog at all. How many times does a gesture suffice? Then Lieutenant Mamiya shifts his position on the sofa. Note that Murakami does not use adverbs like nervously, uncomfortably, etc.. He simply describes what the character is doing, and we get it. We’re humans. We know how to read each other. We understand signals like looking at your watch, shifting position. Mamiya knows what a nod means in that context.

Think very carefully about what your characters are saying to each other, but think just as carefully about why they’re saying it, and how they’re saying it. A couple clicks of a pen, a nod, or and furtive glance to the side can speak volumes.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

 

 

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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