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Take-it-to-the-next-level-ness

I’ve been reading Ethan Mordden’s Buddies about queer life in 1970s Manhattan. It’s inspired  numerous guffaws and clutch-the-pearls moments because, to be sure, I’m an easy mark for stories that involve queens dishing. But that’s a small part of what this book involves.

Mordden develops the characters fully, and their banter peppers conversations that go much deeper than sit-com chat. He uses dialogue not as redundant commentary but to push his stories forward; the characters are talking because conversation is the activity they do most. Exposition works into the dialogue through characters’ lines and narrative comment. To put it in rather simple terms, the balance of showing and telling is about perfect.

That’s pretty much exactly what I want my dialogue to do, and the whole of my writing. But more often than not, my dialogue doesn’t. Dialogue happens to be where I begin in my process of building a scene. I suppose what I do is transcribe what the characters say and note what goes unsaid. In a first draft, when my characters aren’t talking, they’re pointing, raising their eyebrows, turning away–all kinds of pedantic attempts to show, not tell.

It’s potentially interesting stuff, but doesn’t make for engaging reading. So in revision I take out excess words (there are many) and add information that’s missing, gradually shaping it all into something more, I don’t know, full-bodied, maybe. But something about the writing still seems kind of empty. I’ve heard a lot of writers say they feel their work is strong, but it’s lacking a zing or a punch or a something-or-other-to-take-it-to-the-next-level-ness. That goes for me, too.

Searching for what’s missing, or perhaps what’s buried in what we already do in our writing, we writers are great at finding models. What we have trouble doing is figuring out how the writer did what s/he did. So what could I do to make my scenes more like the scenes I enjoy reading? Whereas I tend to focus on the present moment, scenes by Mordden and other writers I admire tend to shift through time fluidly, not getting lost in time, but certainly not getting stuck in the moment.

In that regard, Mordden’s writing actually reminds me a bit of Munro’s (I’m way beyond mere admiration of her writing), the way even minor characters’ experiences, not just the narrator’s or protagonist’s, are offered and entirely relevant to what’s going on. Time, setting, and character become so fully integrated that a feeling of being there is easy. It makes me wonder if writers who are good at this write detailed histories of all of their characters or if they think, “This memory needs to fit in here, I’ll give it to Character G and make it work.”

Although I want to figure out what successful writers do, I’m careful not to spend too much time analyzing and speculating. Unless there’s an interview somewhere in which they reveal their secrets, it’s enough for me to figure out what I like, how I might do it, and then try it out. The lit major in me could study study study, but as a writer, I may not have anything in common with the writers I admire, so there’s no use getting bogged down in a compare/contrast exercise. I have to take even the best advice and knock it around a bit to fit my purposes. Building on greatness is not cheating. The building part actually takes a lot of work.

I’d love to know your thoughts about dialogue, scene building, writing process, learning from greatness, or anything else this post causes you to think about.

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4 Responses

  1. When I write dialogue, I actually write it first like a play, and just write the spoken lines. This way, I can actually get the movement of a scene down very quickly, even if the characters talk too much and I end up taking most of their talking out in the end. I think for me this also allows for me to take the conversation in whatever direction it wants to take — because in some way I am struggling to keep up with the conversation. My characters are always talking faster than I can write. And then I do the editing later.

  2. Thanks, Lee. That’s what I’m doing; I just need to trust the impulse to work that way.

    Looking forward to reading your novel!

  3. Thanks!!

    I don’t know why we don’t trust our instincts when it comes to things like this. I don’t trust them either. Sometimes I wonder if there’s something intrinsically….um, unfinished, or eternally-wrong about writing in that you don’t know how it happens, it just does, and you can’t control it, no matter how much you think you can. Sometimes I think this is why we are always second guessing ourselves.

  4. Also: it’s late and that wasn’t very articulate.

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