Productive Dialogue with Jeff Vandermeer
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.
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 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.”
“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)
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.
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.