The Harrow Was Not Writing Blog

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It’s taken a long time to figure out what I wanted to talk about RE: BORNE. There’s so much of interest in this book, such a wonderful mix of experimental and traditional elements and approaches. In this series taking a look at Jeff Vandermeer’s BORNE, we’ll start by discussing how Vandermeer approaches character arguments. Lots of spoilers for the first half of the book below. 

THE CHALLENGE
For me, writing arguments has always been difficult. I’ve tended to just avoid them, wherever possible, but that means that tensions bubbling under the surface never end up paying off! But when I started trying to bring them to the fore, it constantly felt like I was falling prey to melodrama, and I’d leave the page feeling sick. 

So how do you avoid this? How can you write an argument that works, that evokes real arguments, and moves the story forward? 

THE STORY
Although Jeff Vandermeer’s BORNE is easily one of my favorite novels, my relationship with it is a little messy. Like the book itself, I’d say. It’s a rewarding read, if you can make it to the end, and there’s a lot of good to learn from it, despite its flaws (which I’ll get into in a later post, likely). It’s a bold, strange, experimental kind of SciFi that just feels different from anythings else I’ve read, from the gritty prose to the sweeping braided narrative that combines the personal and the epic. 

The basic premise is this: A scavenger (Rachel) in a post-apocalyptic city full of strange, artificial creatures, discovers a piece of biotech (Borne), and raises him in her home with her drug-dealing boyfriend (Wick). Much of the plot is dedicated to figuring out what Borne is and describing his development from a little sea anemone, to a child, to a super powerful guy. The city is more-or-less ruled by a giant flying bear (Mord), with the Company, who created Mord and once ruled the city, in tattered subservience to him. The only rival to Mord’s dominion seems to be the mysterious Magician. We follow Rachel, Borne and Wick through several great changes in the city as they attempt to navigate this roughshod world. 

Most arguments in this story take place between Rachel and Wick, because their relationship is central to the real plot of the story. This give us a wealth of examples, but I’ll be primarily looking at two. One toward the front of the story, which is a good example of most of the arguments in the book, and one about half way through, which is a sort of pivotal moment (and full of spoilers). 

THE SOLUTION 

Example 1. (Pg 49-50): Wick wants Rachel to give him Borne, so he can tear him apart and figure out what he is. 
     In the morning, with Mord and the weight of Mord just a bad dream, Wick tried again. 
     “I can do it in a gentle way,” he said, but that didn’t reassure me. “I can return him the way he is now.” 
     “No.” 
     His weight went taut against my back. 
     “I shouldn’t have to ask. You should know it’s the best thing.”
     “It’s not.”
     “You know something’s not right, Rachel.” Now he was almost shouting. 
     Like most men, Wick could not help terror about one thing erupting as anger about something else. So I said nothing. 
     But he wouldn’t let up. “Give me Borne,” he said. 
     I refused to turn to look at him. 
     “You need to give him to me, so we know what he is. He lives here, among us, and you protect him in a way that’s unnatural. This thing you know nothing about.” 
     “No.”
     “He may be influencing you using biochemicals,” Wick said. “You may not know your own mind.”
     I laughed at that, even though it could be true. 
     “You have no right, Rachel,” he said, and there was a wounded quality to the word right.
     “Tell me about your time at the Company.” I was tired of talking, just tired period. “Tell me all about your weird telescope.” 
     But he had nothing to say about his telescope. He had nothing else to say at all, and neither did I. We both new that one word more and either I would leave his bed or he would ask me to leave.

This is the most common form that Rachel and Wick’s arguments take. This is one of the first fully fleshed arguments in the book (there are a few attempts to start one earlier, rapidly cut off) and all of these do the work of setting up that later, more explosive argument. 

What interests me here is how this argument is restrained but allowed to flourish because of a diversity of tactics. In previous attempts to get Borne from Rachel, Wick was too lenient, too unwilling to confront her; here, he’s very direct, and comes at it using rational, persuasion tactics. We know, though, that it’s undergirded with paranoia, with maybe understandable fear. Meanwhile, Rachel is sticking her ground, not really engaging with the actual arguments Wick is making, and looking for an opening to change the subject, which she does later, to the effect of stopping the conversation.  It’s Rachel’s refusal to engage that cuts off the argument before it can get too dramatic, that keeps it controlled as we continue to build up context for the big fight. 

But another thing of note is how Rachel is shown to be hyper-aware of Wick’s motivations and feelings. She tells us that his shouting (which seems to come out of nowhere) is because of terror “about one thing.” This argument is rationalized to us just as soon as it needs to be. But also, once he starts really making his argument, she also acknowledges it as rational and possible.

Part of the brilliance of this fight is that we’re learning a lot about Rachel and Wick, and we have Rachel’s sense of self-awareness to thank. Without the editorializing she does, this scene would feel chaotic and confusing, and we wouldn’t know exactly how to evaluate each of these characters. 

That said, let’s move on to the more complex, and harder to pull off, Example 2, the major blowup later in the story. 

Example 2 (p126 – 130): The Magician has forced Wick into a deal that will open up their fortress/home (the Balcony Cliffs) to her soldiers. 
     Three years later, the Magician’s spirit had snuck right into the room with me, between me and Wick. She might also make her headquarters well to the west, in the ruined observatory, but she had found a way to make her influence felt from afar–because we were weak, because our supplies were running low and Wick could see no other way out. She had found a way in because she’d always been there. 
     Borne had gone quiet above us as our voices had gotten louder and Wick had gotten more defensive. 
     “We are not giving up the Balcony Cliffs,” I said. We were not giving up Borne, either. I was tired and drunk, drunk, drunk, but this I knew. 
     “We wouldn’t be giving them up,” Wick said, with little enthusiasm. “People would move in here, help us fortify it. We live here alone. How long do you think that can last?” 
     “It’s lasted pretty long already, Wick.”
     I crammed another minnow in my mouth. Probably my fifth. We were both acting like if we finished off every alcohol minnow in the land tonight we wouldn’t care. 
     “We’re lucky we held out this long.”
     “Why now? Tell me why she’s asking now?”
     “I think she is planning something big. I think her plans are almost set.” Wick’s voice had lowered to a whisper, as if the Magician were listening, which only made me madder. 
     “And how did she reach out? Did she capture you on one of your drug runs? Did she give you all kinds of promises you know she can’t keep? And if she did, how did you make it back here? Why didn’t she just hold on to you?”
     “The Magician’s not asking. The Magician’s telling. That’s what she does these days–tells people things, and people do them.”
     The Magician on one hill and Wick on the other, communicating via hand signals or semaphore. 
     “Who reached out, Wick? Her or you?” 
     He mumbled something, stood, wrapped his hands around the sides of his chair, tapped its legs against the floor a couple of times. 
     “He said he reached out Rachel,” Borne said helpfully from the ceiling. 
     “Borne, stay out of this!” we both shouted at him. 
     “But you said you didn’t hear him and I thought you’d want to know.” 
     “Go back to my apartment and I’ll come check to make sure you’re all right before you go to bed,” I said. 
     “Sure, Rachel. I can go back to your apartment.” 
     Borne sounded dejected, or maybe I just expected he would. Slowly, he slid down the wall, congealed into an upright Borne position, resuscitated his eyes, and left us. If there was a whiff of indignation spider fart left behind, I tried to ignore it, just as I tried to ignore putting Wick’s revelation before Borne’s injuries. 
     “I wanted nothing except to be left alone,” Wick said. “That’s all I wanted, all I’ve ever wanted.” 
     Familiar refrain. I’d never asked why he wanted to be left alone, though. That’s Wick, I always thought. Wick likes to be left alone.
     “It will destroy us, Wick. How can you trust her?”
     “How am I supposed to trust you?” he said. “You brought Borne in here. You won’t get rid of him. The proxies are getting worse–everything is getting worse. We have no choice.” 
     “You know what will happen to Borne when she takes over.”
     Wick shrugged, a shrug that said it wouldn’t be his problem then, and maybe he even hoped once Borne became someone else’s responsibility I would come to my senses, and we would be the “us” and Borne would be one of “them.” 
     “But that’s not even the worst thing, Wick, and you know it.” 
     Wick looked puzzled. “What do you mean?” 
     “The feral children I saw tonight are the same as the ones who attacked me here in Balcony Cliffs.” 
     “There are many terrible people in the city,” Wick said. “Lots of terrible people.” 
     “The ones tonight acted like a patrol, as if they were working for someone. Do you know who? I think you know who.” I wanted badly to say it. 
     “You should get some rest,” Wick said. “You should go to bed.” He wouldn’t look at me, even when I shoved myself in front of him. Yet it didn’t matter. the perverse thing was I knew Wick so well, and he knew me so well, that we both understood what I meant. It was almost the least of what we were conveying to each other in that moment. But still I pushed, because it had to be said out loud. 
     “That night the Magician’s people snuck in and attacked me. It wasn’t something random. They attached because the Magician was sending you a message–and you knew that, and you didn’t tell me.” 
     “I never knew,” Wick protested. “I never knew she would do that. Everything I did was so nothing would happen to you. Can you look me in the eye and say you think I wanted that to happen to you? No, never.” 
     “Wick, you withheld information. You were in trouble with her and you didn’t tell me.” To his credit, he wasn’t trying to deny it now. 
     “Would you have done anything different in my place?” Wick asked, shouting. “And would you have been extra-extra careful instead of extra-careful coming back that night? No and no. And we’d be in the same place right now. No matter what I did–unless I just handed over the Balcony Cliffs.” 
     “You didn’t trust me!” I shouted back. “You don’t fucking trust me.” 
     “It has nothing to do with trust,” Wick said, exasperated, pained. “Nothing at all to do with trust.” He said trust like it was a corrosion. 
     “If I had known, Wick, it would have helped. You would have been more open with me, you wouldn’t have seemed so closed off, secretive. Don’t you see that the Magician drove a wedge between us, that she wanted you to protect me from her demands? To cut you off from me?” 
     “You cut yourself off from me. You did that all on your own–by bringing Borne into our lives and not letting go of him. By clinging to him. You did that. You did that!” 
     “Did you know the Magician tried to recruit me three years ago?” I asked.       “Did you know that Wick? Of course you didn’t. I kept that from you because I didn’t wan the Magician to have more leverage over you than she already has!”
      A cry of frustration from Wick. “How in the name of fuck is that different than me trying to protect you by not telling you things? It’s not different at all! No difference! And I don’t even care!” 
     We were screaming at each other, pointing at each other, but we couldn’t stop.  
     “The difference is, Wick, you’re hiding other things from me. You’re hiding why the Magician has leverage over you in the first place. You’re hiding secrets in your apartment you think I don’t know about.” 
     That brought him up short, but then he realized I couldn’t know his secrets–i just had clues–because he’d been so careful.
     “I don’t have secrets!” he lied. “I don’t have any secrets you need to know about.”
     “You don’t have any secrets I need to know about,” I repeated. “Do you know how stupid that sounds? Well maybe in the morning you’ll remember some secrets I do need to know about. Like the fish project. Like a broken telescope or a metal box full of biotech. Like not ever telling me about your family. Maybe in them morning you’ll realize just how much I might need to know if we’re goin to live together.” 
     Wick got up, started furiously stirring the crap in his swimming pool with a long piece of wood, his back to me. 
     “Isn’t there somewhere else you need to be? Someone else you need to be with?” Accusing, stabbing, but also hurt. I could tell he was hurt, too. 
     We were locked into these positions from the beginning. Wick trying to shield me and do the right thing, conflicted about what that meant . . . and me naive enough to think I could believe in Wick and Borne at the same time. Corrupted by that. Both of us aware, from the remote position looking down on ourselves, that regret, guilt and even arguing distracted us from getting on with the business of trying to survive. 
     I stalked out, intending to join Borne like I’d promised. 


First things first: I’m not sure this scene avoided melodrama.

I suppose it depends on what you mean by the word. You could argue that it’s not melodrama if it works, or if it develops the characters well. Kind of a “know it when I see it” defense. But these characters are literally screaming at each other and, according to the narration, pointing at each other! There’s a lot of drunken “well did you know THIS?” and “It’s all your faults!” in more specific language. 
It’s possible, reading it out of context, that it reads as melodramatic to you. But it didn’t when reading the novel itself, and that’s perhaps one insightful lesson: out of context, almost any blow-out argument is going to feel melodramatic.

If this were on page one of the novel, it would feel melodramatic.

This scene avoids melodrama only because it is built from the massive quilt of context that comes before it. We’ve been waiting for this blow out for some time; it feel inevitable. The dangers of Borne and the Magician and Wick’s secret past have all been built up in complex, powerful, intrusive ways and this is the point in the story where all of those come to a head.

One interpretation could certainly be that, although the argument is melodramatic, we forgive that because we want the argument to happen at this point. 

And maybe that’s all there is to it. 

But that’s not the only thing here that seems intended to save the argument. Part of the effort seems to be to convince you that these characters (especially Rachel) can act this way toward each other. 

This effort begins with a fun prop: alcohol. Rachel and Wick are “drunk, drunk, drunk” and we all know how drunk people are, don’t we. That primes them for this fight, taking away all their silly inhibitions and making it more believable that they would engage with each other in this childish way. I think it’s easy to underestimate the work this simple trick is doing in the scene. 

For the rest of this analysis, I think it’ll be good to have a point by point outline of sorts as to how this fight proceeds. 

1- Start out with a relatively logical discussion about what it will mean to share the Balcony Cliffs with the Magician and whether that is an actual option.
2-Wick points out they were lucky to live there alone even this long, and that prompts Rachel to enter investigation mode.
3- Why did the Magician reach out now? (Wick answers simply)
4-How did the magician reach out for the ask? (Wick dodges this question)
5-Wick’s dodge prompts an accusatory question: Who reached out, Wick or the Magician? (Wick answers, quietly, Borne clarifies his answer) 
6-They kick out Borne together, unified front here. 
7-Rachel starts accusing in Earnest: “How can you trust her?” 
8-Wick hits back “How can I trust you?” This brings Borne into the conversation. 
9-After a few more back and forths, Rachel brings up that the kids who attacked her earlier were likely the Magician’s soldiers (they laid her up for weeks, hurting her very badly) and suggests that Wick knew the Magician would come for her. 
10-here Wick starts to disengage, try to escape the fight. 
11-Biggest, most dramatic accusation: You didn’t trust me, and it got me hurt. Wick’s secrets are a danger to Rachel, his secret past, his secret present, etc. 
12-Wick moves to protect his secrets (his top motive, really) 
13- We end with an insightful paragraph, a bit of editorializing about the fight that acknowledges Wick’s feelings and how they align with and differ from Rachel’s. 

This is a super complex scene and there’s a lot of great stuff here. But notice how the argument starts in a very logical, bandying back and forth place, and it stays there a while. It has an almost journalistic logic (Why? How? Who?) during the whole first half, prompted by Rachel. Borne’s intrusion then gives us a momentary break from the drama, and his kicking out marks the big turning point in the fight–after this they become freer to accuse, to be dramatic.

This makes a ton of sense, from an emotional intelligence point of view. Once the child is out of the room, they feel more free to be childish and mean themselves. 
Also, at this point, other elements start to get folded into the argument. This is not just an argument about the Magician anymore. Their whole lives get folded in and all their anxieties, first Borne, then the attack Rachel suffered, and then Wick’s secretive past (arguably these are the 3 most important elements driving the plot). This argument takes a lot of space and energy, but it’s doing a TON of work to tie together disparate elements, even creating a causal chain that didn’t exist before. This must be part of how the scene gets away with such a heated argument. 

Once the argument gets to Wick’s secrets, he tries instantly to disengage. It’s very sudden, and it puts a lot of emphasis on Wick’s secrets in a way that will create a lot of suspense later on. But it also switches Rachel and Wick’s roles from the previous argument, with Rachel pushing the argument and Wick refusing to look at him. This shows how they both have their specific drives, their limits. 

Finally, and I think this is incredibly important: we get a moment of self-reflection, in which Rachel acknowledges Wick’s feelings and shows how they are similar or different to hers. She knows why this fight happened, can rationalize it, and thus rationalizes it for us. This little moment of self-awareness almost certainly saves this scene, because it gets us into the mind of the characters, helps us to explicitly understand it. It also foreshadows a later development. 

FINALLY
There’s a lot going on in this scene. If you’ve made it this far, you’ve almost certainly noticed something I haven’t. Let me know in the comments. 
Do you have a scene you return to as a touchstone example of an argument in fiction? How does that writer manage the argument so that it’s dramatic without becoming farcical? How do you approach this stuff in your own work? 

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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. 

Written by 

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.