Feelin’ Mighty Low

Cover of

Not too long ago, my friend Damyanti posted something on her writing blog which made me realize how far away from legitimately belonging to a writer’s mentality I am.

Basically, the entry spoke about writing dialog.  It was from “How to Grow a Novel” by Sol Stein.

For context, here’s the quote:

The aim of dialogue is to create emotional effect in the reader.

One of the things a writer has to learn by conscious application is to discard coherence and logic that is usually meant for non-fiction. Dialogue seems artificial when it is coherent and logical.

When writing dialogue, always remember that a character who reveals not enough reveals much.

Always check for conflict in dialogue.

Check whether the lines spoken are consistent with the character’s background.

Weed out any unnecessary words.

Loosen stiff sentences.

Check to see what is going on in between the lines: what counts in dialogue is not what is said but what is meant.

I flitted away after reading and just sort of forgot about the statement.  But a few hours later something started to rattle in the back of my brain.

I have no idea what that final statement meant.

I understood the emotional effect in a reader being generated – sure, writers want to evoke emotional responses in readers with every word, if they can.  One of the purposes of my writing, personally, is to try and raise horror in a reader.  So I get that, though I’m not sure it can be done with all the dialog of a book (though I guess this is even more important in a short story).

The part about discarding coherence and logic didn’t ring true with me, but that’s because when I read something incoherent and illogical I generally put the book down.  Still, I understand dialog in fiction can’t read like a genuine conversation in life.  Too boring, too drifting.  So … sort of, I get that part.  I guess.

The third part, about revealing much by not revealing much sort made me giggle.  It sounds like some sort of Chinese proverb, but I guess I understand.  This creates an unreliable source in the work, and makes the reader tense, curious, fearful, worried, etc.  All emotions, right?  So gotcha.

Conflict?  Okay, but in every bit of dialog?  That’s going to be pretty stupid when you’re protagonist is sitting at the kitchen table with her best friend since high school having coffee and a muffin.  Do you need to insert tension into every piece of dialog you write, or is having some tension and conflict okay?  I grew up in a house where very few conversations didn’t go south somehow.  Plenty of conflict, and the more people there were to participate, the more conflict there was to share.  You know what?  I don’t miss it.  I don’t want it in my fiction, either.  Not all the time.  So I get it, but I disagree.

The next three sentences are pretty straightforward and easy to follow.  Not an issue.  I can do that, and I try to do that all the time.  Not just in dialog, but in all my work.  Cut those needless words and be consistent.  Write like people speak, not like some telemarketer from the 80s reading from a typed script.

Okay, then the bombshell.

I sat there thinking, What the frig??

I’m going to end there, and throw this out to both writers and readers.  What does that mean?  How can I write what isn’t written?  How do you readers go about reading “between the lines” and gathering what’s meant if it’s not said?  Writers, what techniques do you use to infuse your dialog with stuff that’s meant and not said?  Any specific examples you can give?

But what really happened was I realized this isn’t the only area of writing like this.  As much as I’d love to fancy myself “a writer”, it’s realizations like this – that I don’t have a clue what I’m doing if I’m supposed to be able to understand and accomplish things such as what’s stated in the quote above – which start me on the road of self-doubt and wonder about whether or not I’m making a mistake pursuing this.

Sound off, y’all.  I need to hear something, one way or another.


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26 thoughts on “Feelin’ Mighty Low

  1. One theory might be that if the dialogue can’t have tension, it doesn’t belong in the story.

    I know this theory. I still don’t agree, though. Do you?

    After all, good stories are all about conflict.

    Are they? Does that include literary fiction, which doesn’t seem to be about anything sometimes? (This isn’t sarcasm, btw, I really don’t know.)

    In that book, Sol also suggests writing dialog as if you had given the characters separate scripts (no one ever gives a straight answer). He also explains what that means and how to accomplish it. It’s a really good book.

    Guess I should try and pick it up, then. Thanks, Bryce! Is there anything you HAVEN’T read?!

    • > I know this theory. I still don’t agree, though. Do you?

      I think I might, although I’m not that good at implementing it. I can’t think of a compelling reason to watch a character do nothing. Even if the goal is to show the mundane-ness of a character’s life, I think there are faster and better ways to show a boring life than through boring dialog. And once the movement gets going, well, why bore the reader?

      I’m not saying bore the reader, I’m saying every nuance of every story doesn’t have to be packed with tension and conflict. The reader DOES need to have the sawtooth model of ratcheting tension or they become numb. Boring? No. Times of calm where a character sits with others in a cafe having coffee? Why not? Do we HAVE to have an argument at the table because it’s “boring” otherwise?

      > Are they? Does that include literary fiction, which doesn’t seem to be about anything sometimes?

      Yes, all the good ones are. For literary fiction, there’s a lot more internal conflict. The stories that time proves to be great, though, have definite, easily observable conflict. Think Austen, Dickens, Steinbeck, even Hawthorne (who I hated – not him personally, though) – any book you can remember from those folks, you could could probably also tell me what the conflict was. And yes, there, might be lots of literary fiction that is not about conflict. That however, is not good literary fiction.

      Can you think of a single good, memorable story that had no conflict?

      Again, I’m not saying ELIMINATE conflict, I’m saying every piece of DIALOG shouldn’t have to be conflict/tension riddled. Of COURSE a story needs conflict — believe it or not, I HAVE actually studied the craft a little. 😉

      > Is there anything you HAVEN’T read?!

      Yes. I haven’t read Stein’s other famous book on writing (Stein on Writing), although it’s on my want list. I also have never read anything by James Patterson or Janet Evonovich. I have also never read any books on crochet, basketball, or on dental hygiene. That’s not to say that I don’t brush, though.

      Well, I guess you either sleep less or get to read during times I can’t imagine, because you’ve read a BUNCH.

      • …I’m saying every piece of DIALOG shouldn’t have to be conflict/tension riddled…

        Ah, perhaps our definitions of conflict are different. For me, conflict in dialog is not always about arguments. It’s about the braggart friend who never shuts up about his last trip to Africa and the guy who tries to ignore the stories. It’s about getting a chum to reveal a little too much about her love life. It’s about the quiet guy trying to get a word in edgewise. Or the insecure girl trying to finally tell a funny joke, and it’s still not working for her. Somebody in the comments mentioned subtext, and I think that is usually a great way to create conflict without creating a fight. Like J.D. trying to say “I love you” without those actual words leaving his mouth.

        So, yeah, I agree with you that it shouldn’t be tension, tension, tension, explode. Having coffee with pals is fine and may serve a purpose in the story. And that’s really what I think all the character’s actions, be they spoken or not, should be about, moving the story forward. If the purpose of the scene is just to fill up space, though, that is something different altogether.

        I’m just very vocal about the stuff I have read, so it sounds like a lot more stuff than it really is.

        Oh, and sleep is for the weak. 🙂

        Great responses, Bryce. Thanks for clearing it up. I think I’m still weak in this area, but I see the point(s) you’re making much more clearly now. And yeah, I guess when I see the word “conflict” or “tension” I take a VERY literal meaning, and should try and learn the writerly definitions.

  2. It’s like foreshadowing in a way. The conversations between characters should get the reader thinking as much as they impart storyline and draw characters. It’s really not any different than what we see and hear in movies and television except that on the page we have to work harder to paint the images.

    I’ve got to figure out how to do this, and pronto. It makes me doubt my ability to write dialog, which has, historically, been heralded as my strongest suit by a lot of my readers. Which in itself is weird.

    • In my opinion, you’ve always been good at creating a difference ‘voice’ for each character – even if you completely stopping tagging the dialog midway, I’d always be able to tell which character was talking.

      Thanks, bryce! What a great compliment. I’m glad to hear that — and NEEDED it today!

      I’m always afraid that most of the dialog I write just sounds like me talking to myself.

      I’m just afraid they all sound the same unless I start transliterating their speech, which is BAD. I think yours have distinct voices; I’ve not had trouble in the stories I’ve read from you following different speakers. You’re doin’ fine, bud. Jus’ fine. 🙂

    • If people praise your dialogue than you are doing it write. Nothing speaks louder than critiques that don’t mention the dialogue at all because it means it didn’t factor and it should if you are going to use it.

      I think dialogue is the toughest thing to get right.

      Thanks. I don’t know if “critique” would be the right word for it, and I don’t remember my crit board members saying anything about it. But others have; how credible they were as sources remains to be seen. If/When I finish it I’ll call for beta readers and see what they say. Thanks for the shot in the arm, Annie. 🙂

  3. Darc, I think you already have this covered. Some of it seems to be accomplished by the POV you choose. It’s like the undertone of the dialogue. Example: a child has hurt feelings over not being invited to a party — likely dialogue would be how the party is going to be a bomb anyway and they have something better to do. What they don’t say is my feelings are hurt but you know that they are when you hear what they are saying. That is a really simple example but we deal with this everyday. This is the reason people misunderstand each other, especially in emails. People rarely say what they really mean and we all fill in the blanks to fit our own assessments.

    What do you mean by that, Jaymie? (J/K) Thank you for the vote of confidence, but I don’t know if I have it covered because … well, frankly, I have no idea how to do it. If I’m doing it by instinct, then it’s pure, unadulterated LUCK. 🙂

  4. Knyt…I swear I am going to turn you over to Donald Mills for a good ass chewing….the final statement means what the writer implies without saying it……everyone tries to write a story about what they think people will want to read…..but everyone is interested in the human condition and their own lot in life…..so write about yourself and your life and place in the world even if its where you WANT to be………think about a conversation you had with someone and write exactly what was said fore you know your book will be written…good luck and DONT EVER GIVE UP!!! zman sends

    Thanks, Zman, I appreciate the encouragement! Who’s Donald Mills?

    • I never plug another blog but this one is really funny


      I thought he was on your blogroll..sorry bout that….sorry i will never plug another blog on your site…

      Besides who is better the Knyt and his eccentricities..i didnt spell that right but you know what i meant

      now get back to writing


      Actually you spelled “eccentricities” exactly right. I’ll check out the blog, thanks for the tip!

  5. I suggest the following alternate title for Stein’s book:
    Passive-Aggressive Writing; How to impress the Literati and Drive the Average Reader Crazy.


    That’s what his suggestions for dialogue remind me of: passive-aggressive people in conversation. Yes, if well done that can make for very good fiction, but it’s not the only right way.

    Thank you soooo much for affirming that for me! I didn’t think so either. I’ve never read the book, but that snippet sort of threw me.

  6. Ha! I like Sparkling Red’s alternate title. I might write a response to you on my own blog. I have to think some more.

    Well, glad I can provide fodder. 🙂 I liked her alternate title too. Great stuff.

    You worry too much. IMO the best thing you can do for your writing at this point is put the how-to books away for a while and write. Your dialog does a pretty good job the way it is. Don’t put yourself in somebody else’s box.

    /pep talk

    Thanks, sweetie. I appreciate that, especially from you.

  7. I agree with them – OMG -STOP OVER THINKING THIS!

    Oi, that’s so much harder to do than you can imagine!

    You know when you read a book you are enjoying that you are filling in the blanks or at least you think you are so you read more to find out for sure. That is part of what makes for a real page turner. But this can be from the action in the story action, dialogue or both (preferably) and makes us enjoy it more by the nuances.

    If you edit like this by over thinking it or overly worrying about it you will never finish editing the bloody book and none of us will ever get to read it – silly man. 🙂

    Hehehe! Yeah … yeah. I know. But I’m not exactly burning down the editing house right now, y’know? But I thank you for being so encouraging.

    Let your wife or someone else you trust edit your baby and they will probably kill it less than you will since you over think it and are overly critical of yourself.

    Chill Dude!

    I’m tryin’, I swear! Thank you so much!

  8. you are straining your brain too much…

    take a cool drink and go sun bathing…

    things will fall in place on their own…

    i co-blog with my friend…we keep the main post open for comments and other tabs like ‘writing prompts’ not open to comments..

    for this week..
    it took me a couple of hours with lot of arguement with my friend who critiqued..for the main post

    but i wrote the ‘writing prompt’ in 10 minutes..

    frankly i like both of them…

    but the not over analyzed one… was more fun!

    Well, see — soon as I start thinking I’m over-thinking, I end up missing something important, then I start thinking again … I don’t shut down the brain well, or ever. So don’t over-think is easier said than done for me. But I’ll try and relax. 🙂

    And I think me being without a shirt to sunbathe is against the law in most countries, including this one. 😉

  9. Dude it’s about implication. Zman had it right. Sometimes though I think you and I get caught up in this whole stigma of being a ‘writer’ instead of just writing. The story is yours tell it how you like it. Seriously if the publisher doesn’t like it or tells you to work on the dialogue that’s a different story. I actually envision the discussion in my head. Like that one piece I sent you where they were drinking whiskey, that was you and I buddy. I just put down what I thought we would say…

    Basically don’t get to hung up on this stuff. Art is abject and writing is an art. Just because I don’t get some of the modern art doesn’t mean it’s not good, I just don’t get it!

    Well, there’s truth to the implication thing, but I don’t know if I’ve ever done that. As far as just writing dialog goes, I don’t think I have a problem with authenticity; just what they’re saying and what they’re SUPPOSED to IMPLY by what they DON’T say. Er, or something like that. 🙂

    OH, and I do the same thing with dialog — just imagine a movie with the conversation in it; like I’m an observer just transcribing. Matter of fact, that’s how I approach ALL my writing. 😀

    • Remember that Ghost Hunters started as an exercise in dialog and I think most of us would tell us that’s the best piece you’ve ever written!

      Thanks, bud. I appreciate that. Don’t know if I agree about the best piece part, but I sure am glad to know you all enjoyed it. Does my heart glad. 🙂

  10. Forgot something…you’ve heard them that can do, them that can’t teach. I’d change it a bit, them that can write, them that can’t write, write how to books (sorry Sol). We’ve become a nation of how to books, figuring some one else knows better about us than we do. Ask your stomach. It knows.

    That’s hysterical. Guess I’d better stop writing about writing and start writing. 😉

  11. Hey Darc, lighten up there…you seem to have cooked up a storm over my post….. 🙂

    You can take a how-to book, read it, and take what strikes you the most. That is exactly what it should be good for, I feel.

    I think you might be right, Damyanti. 🙂

    What strikes me as good may not be the right thing for you, which is perfectly all right, we are different as people. Also, the same hat does not fit every artist.

    That said, if you really want to understand what Sol said, pick up the book and take a read. I have picked out bits that I liked from the chapter on the novel, but these bits may be out of context and hence difficult for you to understand.

    That’s good advice. I’ve reserved it at the library and will pick it up as soon as I can. 🙂

    Over all, just relax, you are a great writer….and here’s a big bear-hug for you from across the oceans !

    Thank you. That’s very humbling from a writer of your caliber, and I appreciate the hug, too. 🙂

  12. Look, most of what I’d say has been said…but that won’t stop me from adding my two sparkling cents. Writing books are filled with great and conflicting information. And what means something to this writer won’t mean anything to another. I’m guilty of putting tension in every single bit of dialog I write. Really. But tension can be lots of different things to different people–and there are degrees of tension. And this doesn’t mean you should add tension.

    Okay, I guess I need to re-read your stuff, ’cause I sure didn’t get pick up the tension in every line of dialog … but that just highlights what I’m talking about here.

    Beware of shoulds. Evil little blighters.

    Oh yeah.

    But if people have liked what you do, and have said you’re good at dialog, does it mean you have to be able to discuss it like you were teaching a college MFA class? No. And plenty of people can talk about this stuff but they can’t do it. Publication waits for people who DO. Not people who talk. Well, unless it’s bad talk tv.

    You don’t want dialog to be boring. That’s it. That is the only rule I can think of that works for everyone. Don’t be boring.

    VERY good advice. VERY good.

    And don’t let angst over this be an excuse not to write either.

    Oh, I haven’t needed any excuses not to write. Lord knows. So, I promise — I won’t. 🙂

    • I want to add that when I add tension, what I think I mean is, I know what the character worries about, what they risk, what they don’t want to say. That is in my head when I write, but that may not be THERE on the page. But maybe I do this because I grew up in an environment where I was unable to express myself directly and to get along I learned to read people for what they were not saying. To this day I over analyze and second guess what people say.

      Well, I can almost relate. I grew up in a house where I wasn’t able to express freely, but never learned to read between the lines. I’m still a WYSIWYG sort of guy, I guess, and maybe that’s holding me back. I just don’t know if I can write every piece of dialog, every line, every instance, with a deep, tense undertone. THAT isn’t natural sounding either, IMO. But then, I’m asking for help on this, so I need to learn. Thank you for sharing your insights with me. 🙂

  13. Speaking of Hitchcock and some interesting dialog consider the film ‘ROPE’ I love that one.

    I’ll see what I can find.

    I think ultimate you can’t think of subtext, subtext just kind of happens and ultimately your style comes into play as well. I used to drive one of my writer pals crazy because my dialog isn’t natural, everyone speaks in speeches and quips. Well yeah maybe but that’s just me bein’ me.

    I think you’re doing fine with your work.

    • That’s a riot. I had included Rope up above but thought Psycho was enough. Rope is a fantastic film on so many levels of less is more and inuendo. Letting the film watcher scare himself with little dialog and so much in between the lines guessing and discovery. How about that Jimmy Stewart.

      Two votes for “Rope”. Got it.

  14. Knyt

    One of Kings’ best is IT…..cause the whole begining he writes about the implications of what would happen….the best way i think to write a story is to tell it in such a way that the reader is sure what is going to happen just not how…

    Something to be said about that technique, Zman, that’s for sure. It’s hard to argue with Stephen King’s success. It’s also very difficult to duplicate his process, no matter HOW many books of his — fiction OR non — one reads. He’s just a master, and there’s a reason for it. 🙂

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