A Cover! and Thoughts(™) About Dialogue
Everything is happening so much all the time
Hello! It’s been a little while! I hope the first several weeks of the year have been very kind to you. All of the oak trees in my neighborhood have decided to bud at once. My car turned yellow the other day. I am deliriously pleased to have it warming up again.
First, a very exciting update for Shoot the Moon — a cover!
Look at that color palette! Look at that font!! Look at that Annie!!!
If you can believe it, the insides of the book are just as gorgeous. Pre-order here if you’re interested in seeing the whole thing in all its star-stuff glory on October 10th, 2023 💕🚀
With Annie & Co. packed into their rocket and soaring toward release day (brief shill: subscribe to stay tuned for more info about that voyage throughout this year!), I’ve been looking at some old drafts of mine. It’s been a trip to find improvements I’ve made right alongside crutchy prose habits I still have yet to break. The most obvious to me is how much more comfortable I’ve gotten with dialogue.
To me, the definitions of impressionism and expressionism are still very applicable to this part of the craft: defining a scene by the way one perceives it (impressionism, or internalized narration), versus defining a scene by the way it’s being felt by the artist (expressionism, or externalized narration).
Previously, I feel like my narrative voice has over-focused on my protags internalizing how the story is affecting them rather than externalizing it. It’s a very lonely way of leading a reader through a story, which I think works well in some cases to quite moving ends.
As I’ve been poking at dormant draft scraps lately—mostly to see what pokes back—I’ve been turning over tangible mile markers in my work of becoming more comfortable with externalizing.
I’ve boiled down the way I approach dialogue to a single observation: everyone (or almost everyone, save for the bravest of us) is constantly masking. There’s a switch relay between what someone says to themself, versus what comes out of their mouth.
You have been inconvenienced. Wow, you say to yourself, staring at the inconveniencing person as you collect yourself and ensure the switch is flipped, you absolute frothing asshole.
“That’s extremely unfortunate to hear,” you say, free and clear of a social gaffe.
Interesting things happen when the switch fails to flip, for whatever reason; stress, confusion, or simply lacking the faculties or care to even try flipping it.
You have been inconvenienced. “Wow. You absolute frothing asshole,” you say out loud, to the inconveniencing person. Whether you meant to, or not. Whoops.
You have committed the social gaffe of unchecked earnestness. You will now feel like shit for the rest of the day for being a dick to an airport gate agent just as pissed off by the situation as you were.
My key to making characters who interest me (i.e. make me excited to keep writing them) is finding the point at which that switch flips for them—everyone internalizes and externalizes at different levels, so where’s the limit?
Dialogue is the face of that limit, evidence of the switch being flipped. It’s the origin point of absolute mask-off vulnerability, even just for a moment—if you change the way a character is speaking, you’re changing everything about them. The way they’re holding their shoulders; a particular twist in their expression; the pitch of their voice going up or down or breaking in half. All those things give the page something to point to and say Watch, reader, pay attention to this.
(This goes doubly for a limited 3rd person or 1st person narrative voice, as the reader is privy to two layers of this masking—the way a character speaks to others, and the way they speak about or to themself. The minute differences between those two degrees can be an extremely effective tool.)
Some characters are always doing this, always on full-bore. Others will never let that switch flip and simply stew in their own shut-off reactor core. Others will be somewhere in the middle, a brilliant scatter of interesting personalities to explore and mash together like Barbie dolls.
(And yes, of course, sometimes cut off all their hair. We were all weird kids once, weren’t we?)
I’ve found my favorite ways to explore dialogue living in live performances: music, stage, radio dramas. Old motets, Shakespeare (ideally c/o Sir Ian McKellen and/or Ruth Negga), Case 63, The Twilight Zone, Sondheim, and any Highsmith adaptation that preserves the veracity with which her characters snap at each other’s throats.
Hold them up to your ears and let them talk to you. Sometimes, you can hear the ocean roaring back.
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