The Harrow Was Not Writing Blog

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Just as I’m re-reading The Left Hand of Darkness, I get the news. Ursula K. Le’Guin, a writer whose work has taught me more than maybe any other, has passed away. So I’m writing this as a tribute of sorts to her, for what little its worth. I’d like to start by taking a look at how she delivers emotion during dialogue. 

THE CHALLENGE
There’s a difficult balance to strike when we try to emote through fiction, but I have frequently pinballed between the extremes of melodrama and distant emotionlessness. The common advice for avoiding melodrama and evoking emotion is to show your character’s emotions instead of telling them.

Speaking from experience, taking this advice to its extreme leads to scenes that read as overly technical and distant, and makes it hard for readers to actually understand the emotion that the writer is trying to portray. 

LeGuin gives us a much more nuanced look at delivering emotions during dialogues.

THE STORY
The Left Hand of Darkness is a technical masterpiece. It manages to be a largely internal, introspective piece of fiction that still maintains a slow burning suspense for 300 pages. Its key selling point, for a lot of readers, is the deeply imagined world it explores, one that overturns and re-imagines some of Western society’s longest held institutional and social structures. 

It also has an interesting way of depicting the narrator’s emotions during dialogue, which can be seen in the following short excerpt. At this point in the story, we know that the narrator (Genly Ai) is a visitor from a distant planet (Earth) who often struggles to engage with a society he doesn’t understand. His key guide in this world is Estraven, the Prime Minister of this monarchy, and after two years, Estraven has finally invited Genly to his home for dinner. 

Pg12 – 15: “I’m sorry,” he was saying, “that I’ve had to forestall for so long this pleasure of having you in my house; and to that extent at least I’m glad there is no longer any question of patronage between us.” 
     I puzzled at this a while. He had certainly been my patron in court until now. Did he mean that the audience he had arranged for me with the king tomorrow had raised me to an equality with himself? “I don’t think I follow you,” I said. 
     At that, he was silent, evidently also puzzled. “Well, you understand,” he said at last, “being here . . . you understand that I am no longer acting on your behalf with the king of course.”
     He spoke as if ashamed of me, not of himself. Clearly there was a significance in his invitation and my acceptance of it which I had missed. But my blunder was in manners, his in morals. All I thought at first was that I had been right all along not to trust Estraven. He was not merely adroit and not merely powerful, he was faithless. All these months in Ehrenrang it had been he who listened to me, who answered my questions, sent physicians and engineers to verify the alienness of my physique and my ship, introduced me to people I needed to know, and gradually elevated me from my first year’s status as a highly imaginative monster to my present recognition as the mysterious Envoy, about to be received by the King. Now, having got me up on that dangerous eminence, he suddenly and cooly announced that he was withdrawing his support. 
    “You’ve led me to rely on you–“
    “It was ill done.”
    “Do you mean that, having arranged this audience, you haven’t spoken in favor of my mission to the king as you–” I had the sense to stop short of “promised.”
     “I can’t.” 
     I was very angry, but I met neither anger nor apology in him. 
     “Will you tell me why?”
     After a while he said, “Yes,” and then paused again. During the pause I began to think that an inept and undefended alien should not demand reasons from the prime minister of a kingdom, above all when he does not and perhaps never will understand the foundations of power and the workings of government in that kingdom. No doubt this was all a matter of shifgrethor–prestige, face, place, the pride-relationship, the untranslatable and all-important principle of social authority in Karhide and all civilizations of Gethen. And if it was I would not understand it. 
     “Did you hear what the king said to me at the ceremony today?”
     “No.”
     Estraven leaned forward across the hearth, lifted the beer-jug out of the hot ashes and refilled my tankard. He said nothing more, so I amplified, “The king didn’t speak to you in my hearing.” 
     “Nor in mine,” said he. 
     I saw at last that I was missing another signal. Damning his effeminate deviousness, I said, “Are you trying to tell me, Lord Estraven, that you’re out of favor with the king?”
     I think he was angry then, but he said nothing that showed it, only, “I’m not trying to tell you anything Mr. Ai.”
     “By God, I wish you would.” 
     He looked at me curiously. “Well then, put it this way. There are some persons in court who are, in your phrase, in favor with the king, but who do not favor your presence or your mission here.”
     And so you’re hurrying to join them, selling me out to save your skin, I thought, but there was no point in saying it. Estraven was a courtier, a politician, and I a fool to have trusted him. Even in a bisexual society the politician is very often something less than an integral man. His inviting me to dinner showed that he thought I would accept his betrayal as easily as he committed it. Clearly face-saving was more important than honesty. So I brought myself to say, “I’m sorry that your kindness to me has made trouble for you.” Coals of fire. I enjoyed a flitting sense of moral superiority, but not for long; he was too incalculable. 

THE SOLUTION
Begin with the final paragraph. That’s where all of Le’Guin’s work to this moment really pays off–the conversation after this point veers off in another direction, and this paragraph punctuates this short exchange. Quite powerfully, I’d say. It seems clear to me that what the character feels here is anger and betrayal. 

How is this passage accomplishing that? 

Clearly, LeGuin is telling, to a certain degree. She doesn’t say “I felt angry and betrayed” but she’s not quite showing anything–there isn’t a lot of sensory detail there. We don’t have a scene or even a physical action. What we do have is an interpretation of events delivered to us. Genly Ai interprets Estraven’s motives delivers them to us in a pithy, obviously angry speech. The feelings are more specific than vague adjectives such as “angry.” Instead of saying “I’m angry,” Ai says “Clearly face-saving was more important than honesty” revealing a clear break in values for our narrator.

Out of context, this paragraph could easily read as melodramatic. 

But it doesn’t, because of all the work that’s been done to build to this point to add context and weight to the relationship between these two characters. So what is the context? 


Let’s take a look at the context LeGuin adds in order. 

1. Before we even get to this conversation, we have a fairly drawn out section of the narrator wondering why he’s been invited to dinner only now, two years into his relationship with Estraven. This mystery is built up for several pages, until we feel the answer is so important that we need to know it. (And a note of genius here: the mystery is actually prolonged by the cultural differences and understandings between these characters). 

2. Ai interprets the way that Estraven is speaking in line with his fears (“He spoke as if ashamed of me, not of himself”). Because it is obviously interpretive, as readers we sense this may not be the answer–we have seen Ai misinterpret people several times already in this novel. 

3. Ai gives us a very specific, detailed breakdown of his relationship with Estraven. It shows how helpful Estraven has come to be, and why Ai has grown to trust him. Although it’s really told through summary, it’s evocative to a certain degree because of how specific it is. We get a mini montage, we come to understand that Estraven is Ai’s only help in this world. This important piece of context helps us understand Ai’s emotional motivations. 

4. Notice that most of the outward dialogue does not truly betray Ai’s emotional state. With the context, we can sense that he’s growing emotional in some way, but also it feels like he’s holding back. It’s important for him not to have some insane outward explosion of emotion–it would feel melodramatic. There are 2 key exceptions to this: 

This line: “You’ve led me to rely on you–” 
–This line shows the rising sense of betrayal. A less skilled writer might have grown off of this, but LeGuin squashes it immediately, not even allowing Ai to finish the sentence before Estraven apologizes. 

And finally, this line: “I’m sorry that your kindness to me had made trouble for you.” 
–LeGuin describes this as “coals of fire” which is an incredibly apt metaphor for the entire conversation. The conversation burns red with anger, but not like fire, in wild spurts, but subtly, controlled. This piece of dialogue is of course magnificent in part because it’s anger parading as an apology. This is Ai’s attempt to undercut Estraven’s face-saving techniques. 

FINALLY
You can probably guess the short answer to building emotion: context. When you want an emotional moment, it’s important for you to understand your character’s emotional motivation–why do they feel the way they feel in this moment? LeGuin here delivers that context through conflict and misunderstandings and through detailed, specific summary. It’s the history between these characters that opens up the emotional motivation of the character.

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Recently, I’ve been reading screenplays, because I’m writing one. As a learning activity for anyone who struggles with plot, visual writing or dialogue, reading and writing screenplays can be valuable. Screenplays offer fairly transferable skills, although they won’t offer any insight into introspection, complex sentence structure, or use of a wide buffet of senses (since you’re limited to sight and sound). 

Today I’m taking a look at dialogue in the movie Gattaca. 

THE CHALLENGE: 
Dialogue with conflict that feels believable, tense and “not dumb” can be hard for me. I avoid dialogue–I’ve written entire novels that have no more than a few dozen lines of dialogue. So I’ve been trying to round out my skills by focusing on this personal weakness. 

So I turned to screenplays, as a way to really focus in on dialogue. 

THE STORY: 
Not everyone agrees with me on this, but I love this movie. Slow to start, spending the first third in flashbacks, but with a tight emotional core and thematic resonance. And a surprisingly tense, suspenseful feel even during scenes of people sitting around talking to each other.

Be warned though: Jude Law absolutely outclasses every other actor in this movie. It’s embarrassing, really. 

What you need to know before you read the following excerpts is that the protagonist, referred to as Vincent in this portion of the screenplay, was born of a natural birth in a world of designer babies. He dreams of being an astronaut but Gattaca Aerospace only accepts the best of the best. In this scene he is looking for an elite designer-born person whose identity he can use to infiltrate Gattaca Aerospace. This is a very detailed process in a world that uses your blood, skin cells, hair, and saliva to verify your identity at every turn. 

Find screenshots of the screenplay below: 

   

THE SOLUTION: 
Perhaps, in reading that excerpt, you tell me: liar! Those had very little suspense at all! 

And you’re right. But you’ve probably not seen the movie, or you don’t remember it. Most screenplays don’t end up matching the movie itself–there are so many other people in the process making changes. This screenplay turned up surprisingly close to the movie, but there are small differences that improve the story immensely. 

One of those is that in many of the early scenes, where Vincent says things like “Even with lifts I’m never that tall” and German says “There’s a way,” the director has switched the dialogue around, often without even changing the phrasing. So instead, the movie has Vincent offering to wear lifts and German saying “Even with lifts, your not that tall.” 

This is important for a bunch of reasons. For one, the script tells us that Vincent has all this drive, but at every moment of struggle, he offers to give up. It’s totally inconsistent with his character. Secondly, on a thematic level, the screenplay puts the doubt in Vincent’s mind, as if it’s not the world getting in his way, just himself–that really doesn’t jive with the theme expressed in the premise (A world where oppression exists along genetic lines). 

Third, and probably most importantly on a scene-by-scene, technical level, the original conversation in the dialogue makes it so that Vincent’s allies are always propping him up, supporting him. It made it seem like the world is friendly, welcoming to Vincent’s rise above his genetic circumstances, and it makes the scenes themselves super boring. 

In the screenplay, when Vincent says “I’ll never be that tall” it’s a concession, a white flag, even a subtle hint that the show won’t go on. 

In the movie, when it’s one of his allies who says “He’ll never be that tall” it’s a challenge for the protagonist to overcome. It’s a barrier, and it shows how pervasive the “anti-godborn” sentiment is in this world–even his friends doubt him. Because it’s just science. He’ll never overcome, and everyone knows it. 

FINALLY
This simple shift speaker of the line lends credence to the argument that dialogue should be a contest of wills, that every relationship should be adversarial. And it points to at least one potential form that adversarial relationships can take: doubt.

Eugene and German both want Vincent to succeed for their own reasons, but they can’t help but doubt that he can achieve it, and they can’t help but vocalize that doubt. All throughout the screenplay they’re telling him how what he wants isn’t just hard, it’s impossible. It’s the same message Vincent’s antagonists are giving him, the same one the world is giving him, and it’s that consistency that gives the dialogue substance, clarity, and suspense. 

We spend the entire movie thinking: maybe German is right when he says “even with lifts,” Vincent will never overcome his genes. 

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Clicking the image to the left will take you to the Amazon page for the edition I own of Jeff Vandermeer’s Area X trilogy, which we’ll be talking about today. Obviously, I don’t expect you to read the entire novel just in preparation for this post, but I’ll be providing a few pages below for context and I’ll try to avoid spoilers as much as possible.

Let’s talk about talk. 

The Challenge:

I avoid dialogue. Part of that comes from what I read–most of the short fiction I’ve read is notably sparse on speech. But as I switch back into novel gears, I’ve noticed more and more how unavoidable dialogue is, and how compelling it can be in a sea of prose. There’s just one problem: my dialogue muscles are flabby from under-use. I can’t seem to write dialogue that moves the plot forward (or even understand what that means), and the language of it feels unreal, useless, loose. My writing loses the sort of density of purpose that I’ve come to expect of it. 

Is it even possible to write dialogue like I want? 

The Story:

The Area X trilogy is a fascinating modern weird fiction. Shorter than your average novels (averaging out at about 250 pages), they read quickly and they take weird fiction right into scifi territory–and it’s the overlap of weird and scifi that tends to grab me the best. So these books really swept me up–they’re doing a lot of things that I desperately want to do. 

I will say, as a word of caution, that if you can’t stand mysteries that extend over several books (and indeed, may never be answered) then these books probably aren’t for you, ultimately. But there are still some great gems of technique, and one of those is dialogue. 

In this book in particular, Vandermeer’s dialogue is superb. It feels combative, high-stake, and tightly crafted. Here are two excerpts relevant to our discussion today, from the second book, Authority. First, one from the very first chapter: 

First day. The beginning of his last chance. 

“These are the survivors?”

Control stood beside the assistant director of the Sourthern Reach, behind smudged one-way glass, staring that the three individuals sitting in the interrogation room. Returnees from the twelfth expedition into Area X. 

The assistant director, a tall, thin black woman in her forties, said nothing back, which didn’t surprise Control. She hadn’t wasted an extra word on him since he’d arrived that morning after taking Monday to get settled. She hand’t spared him an extra look, either, except when he’d told her and the rest of the staff to call him “Control,” not “John” or “Rodriguez.” She had paused a beat, then replied, “In that case, call me Patience, not Grace,” much to the stifled amusement of those present. The deflection away from her real name to one that also meant something else interested him. “That’s okay,” he’d said, “I can just call you Grace,” certain this would not please her. She parried by continually referring to him as the “acting director. Which was true: There lay between her stewardship and his ascension a gap, a valley of time and forms to be filled out, procedures to be followed, the rooting out and hiring of staff. Until then, the issue of authority might be murky. 

But Control preferred to think of her as neither patience nor grace. He preferred to think of her as an abstraction if not an obstruction. She had made him sit through an old orientation video about Area X, must have known it would be basic and out of date. She had already made clear that theirs would be a relationship based on animosity. From her side, at least. 

“Where were they found?” he asked her now, when what he wanted to ask was why they hadn’t been kept separate from one another. Because you lack the discipline, because your department has been going to the rats for a long time now? The rats are down there in the basement now, gnawing away. 

“Read the files,” she said, making it clear he should have read them already.

Then she walked out of the room. (133-134)


Now, their third exchange in the book, only a little while later. 

“You interviewed just the biologist. I still do not know why.” She said this before he could extend even a tendril of an opening gambit…and all of his resolve to play the diplomat, to somehow become her colleague, not her enemy–even if by misdirection or a metaphorical jab in the kidneys–dissolved into the humid air. 

He explained his thought processes. She seemed impressed, although he couldn’t really read her yet. 

“Did she ever seem, during training, like she was hiding something?” he asked. 

“Deflection. You think she is hiding something.”

“I don’t know yet, actually. I could be wrong”

“We have more expert interrogators than you.”

“Probably true.”

“We should send her to Central.”

The thought made him shudder. 

“No,” he said, a little too emphatically, then worried in the next split second that the assistant director might guess that he cared about the biologist’s fate. 

“I have already sent the anthropologist and the surveyor away.”

Now he could smell the decay of all that plant matter slowly rotting beneath the surface of the swamp, could sense the awkward turtles and stunted fish pushing their way through matted layers. He didn’t trust himself to turn to face her. Didn’t trust himself to say anything, stood there suspended by his surprise. 

Cheerfully, she continued: “You said they weren’t of any use, so I sent them to Central.”

“By whose authority?”

“Your authority. You clearly indicated to me that this was what you wanted. If you meant something else, my apologies.”

A tiny seismic shift occurred inside of Control, an imperceptible shudder. 

They were gone. he couldn’t have them back. He had to put it out of his mind, would feed himself the lie that Grace had done him a favor, simplified his job. Just how much pull did she have at Central, anyway?

“I can always read the transcripts if I change my mind,” he said, attempting an agreeable tone. They’d still be questioned, and he’d given her the opening by saying he didn’t want to interview them. 

She was scanning his face intently, looking for some sign that she’d come close to hitting the target. 

He tried to smile, doused his anger with the thought that if the assistant director had meant him real harm, she would have found a way to spirit the biologist away, too. This was just a warning. Now, thought, he was going to have to take. something away from Grace as well. Not to get even but so she wouldn’t be tempted to take yet more from him. He couldn’t afford to lose the biologist, too. Not yet. 

Into the awkward silence, Grace asked, “Why are you just standing out here in the heat like an idiot?” Breezily, as if nothign had happened at all. “We should go inside. It’s time for lunch, and you can meet some of the admin.” (150-151)

The Solution:

To keep this as tight an analysis as possible, I decided to limit my talk to the three big takeaways that these two exchanges seem to be dishing out. 

1. Be Efficient:

A lot of the lean feeling of this exchange comes from it actually being lean. The spoken sentences are quite short, almost to the point of feeling stilted, and reading it out loud does not produce an exchange that sounds in anyway human. They’re worse than Spock. This may not work in all dialogue (I’d have to go looking for more–and maybe I will) but when two characters are speaking in this sort of conflict-heavy manner, it seems to really work. 

Another way Vandermeer keeps it lean is by not letting it get too chatty. When Control isn’t sure what to say, he just says nothing, and Grace picks the conversation back up. And when Control is explaining something we already know, he summarizes it (“He explained his thought process.”). Finally, he makes sure the conversation isn’t side tracked into obvious distractions from the task at hand (“We have more expert interrogators than you” could have devolved into a pointless argument, but instead led into “Probably true.”).

As a final note on efficiency (all this can only have come from ruthless cutting, right?), all of the conversations end rather rapidly with a line of narration or a quick quote into the next scene. 

2. Move the Story Forward

Maybe this is not the only way to move story forward in a dialogue (BIG REVEALS come to mind) but this conversation uses an interesting technique: limitation. When Grace declares that she’s sent the other members of the team away, this of course functions as a reveal, but that’s not how it’s affecting the plot.  What it serves to do is tell the reader where the plot will be going–in essence it says “Don’t get distracted by these other three people, they don’t matter.” At that point we realize (and we had some reason to suspect this) that the story won’t be wasting its time with the other scientists. 

Of all the typical advice about dialogue, this was perhaps the one I knew the best but found the most mysterious. Here, at least, is one practical example of how it’s used in actual work, which was fascinating to me.

3. So Much of this Dialogue is Under the Surface

In the first segment, a bunch of narration is basically invaded by two short exchanges of dialogue. Mostly, I included that first segment because of how important the context of it is for the second exchange to make any sense at all. Providing this context lets the reader know, pretty much immediately in this story, that these two are playing a verbal chess game, and that colors all of their future interactions. Largely, these characters want the same thing, but they are heavily antagonistic to each other, and we’re never sure if we can trust Grace. 

I don’t know, but I certainly would expect, that the second exchange would be quite hard to follow without this context. Even without the gentle reminders of theirs conflict between lines in the second dialogue, it would be a little hard to understand why Grace has done something that seems to be against her own interests. But because of the context, and the stuff taking place under the surface (the breakdowns of communication) we can understand that not only did Grace do this purposefully to upset Control, she did it despite the fact that it would cost her. 

Finally:

Perhaps the ultimate take away is that I’ve been writing dialogue far too flippantly. It takes an aggressive level of forethought (or post-thought or both) to write a solid piece of dialogue. Even a brief, two line exchange without this level of interrogation may corrupt your sense of strength and pacing. And ultimately, powerful dialogue boils down to concisely displaying conflict between two characters. 

What do you think of the three tips above? Might you add any others? Do you have any scenes of dialogue you go back to for tips now and again? I’d love to hear them and take a look at them myself.