First, a shout-out to Matt Bell’s December newsletter, which dropped today and is also about dialogue. If you’re not already a subscriber, I strongly suggest signing up. Not only does he have killer writing prompts, he also offers excellent reading recommendations and insights into the craft of fiction. A gifted writer and teacher.
Dialogue often intimidates my fiction students. Many say they struggle to write dialogue that feels convincing and real. And this is troubling—how is it that we’re constantly talking, listening, arguing, eavesdropping, and yet, when we try to render speech on the page, it rings false? Part of the challenge lies in the fact that good written dialogue should sound real but of course isn’t—it’s substantially “cleaned up” when compared to actual conversations, full as they are of interruptions, digressions, repetitions, and so on. And beyond making their dialogue tidier than it is in real life, but still real-feeling—whatever that means—writers must also consider how they can load their dialogue with subtext, using it to reveal characters and the dynamics between them without getting clunky and over-explanatory, or, for that matter, opaque.
One way, for me, to address these considerable challenges is to get to know my characters. The better I know them, the better I know how they’ll sound, the rhythms of their speech, the phrases they favor, the ways they react to others. Today’s poem and story both feature dialogue duets that have that undefinable sense of reality, exchanges that also crackle with the unspoken. The writers clearly know these people inside and out.
Roy Lichtenstein, Ohhh… Alright… (1964)
How It Will End
We’re walking on the boardwalk
but stop when we see a lifeguard and his girlfriend
fighting. We can’t hear what they’re saying,
but it is as good as a movie. We sit on a bench to find out
how it will end. I can tell by her body language
he’s done something really bad. She stands at the bottom
of the ramp that leads to his hut. He tries to walk halfway down
to meet her, but she keeps signaling Don’t come closer.
My husband says, “Boy, he’s sure in for it,”
and I say, “He deserves whatever’s coming to him.”
My husband thinks the lifeguard’s cheated, but I think
she’s sick of him only working part-time
or maybe he forgot to put the rent in the mail.
The lifeguard tries to reach out
and she holds her hand like Diana Ross
when she performed “Stop in the Name of Love.”
The red flag that slaps against his station means strong currents.
“She has to just get it out of her system,”
my husband laughs, but I’m not laughing.
I start to coach the girl to leave the no-good lifeguard,
but my husband predicts she’ll never leave.
I’m angry at him for seeing glee in their situation
and say, “That’s your problem—you think every fight
is funny. You never take her seriously,” and he says,
“You never even give the guy a chance and you’re always nagging,
so how can he tell the real issues from the nitpicking?”
and I say, “She doesn’t nitpick!” and he says, “Oh really?
Maybe he should start recording her tirades,” and I say
“Maybe he should help out more,” and he says
“Maybe she should be more supportive,” and I say
“Do you mean supportive or do you mean support him?”
and my husband says that he’s doing the best he can,
that he’s a lifeguard for Christ’s sake, and I say
that her job is much harder, that she’s a waitress
who works nights carrying heavy trays and is hit on all the time
by creepy tourists and he just sits there most days napping
and listening to “Power 96” and then ooh
he gets to be the big hero blowing his whistle
and running into the water to save beach bunnies who flatter him
and my husband says it’s not as though she’s Miss Innocence
and what about the way she flirts, giving free refills
when her boss isn’t looking or cutting extra large pieces of pie
to get bigger tips, oh no she wouldn’t do that because she’s a saint
and he’s the devil, and I say, “I don’t know why you can’t just admit
he’s a jerk,” and my husband says, “I don’t know why you can’t admit
she’s a killjoy,” and then out of the blue the couple is making up.
The red flag flutters, then hangs limp.
She has her arms around his neck and is crying into his shoulder.
He whisks her up into his hut. We look around, but no one is watching us.
Who is this person?
Born in Rhode Island, Denise Duhamel earned an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and has published several volumes of poetry and chapbooks. She is the recipient of an NEA fellowship, and her work has appeared in Best American Poetry and on NPR’s All Things Considered. She teaches creative writing and literature at Florida International University.
It’s still dark when I wake up, the morning after Mike leaves, but Mitsuko’s mincing shrimp. She’s hunched over the cutting board, beside eggs, flour, and honey.
Do you eat, she asks.
I tell her I do.
We don’t say shit while she’s working. Mitsuko blitzes everything in a food processor. Drops the mixture in a skillet, dabbing everything with soy sauce, folding the batter gradually. I take my meds, watching her do all this, and she ignores me the entire time, working at her own pace.
When I sit on the sofa, Mitsuko stops rolling. I stand to set the table, and she starts rolling again.
Once she’s finished, she fills a bowl with some pickled cucumbers and puts an omelette on a plate, leaving another one out for me. We eat hunched over the counter, hip to hip.
So, Mitsuko says, how long have you been sleeping with my son? Or is it casual?
Not really, I say.
I don’t know how it works, Mitsuko says.
I think it’s the same for everyone.
It isn’t, Mitsuko says.
She says, I’m sure you can tell that Michael and I are very close.
We’ve been together for four years, I say. More or less.
More, Mitsuko asks, or less?
A little more, I say.
But just a little, she says.
Mike’s better with numbers, I say.
It occurs to me that my posture is entirely fucked up. Mitsuko’s is impeccable, even at a lean. So I straighten up, and then I stoop, and Mitsuko raises an eyebrow.
She snorts, and says, My son could not be worse with numbers.
After that, we eat in silence. Scattered Spanish filters in through the window. The kids next door kick a soccer ball against the wall, until their father, a big Venezuelan dude, steps outside yelling, asking which one of them has lost their fucking mind.
While Mitsuko’s focussed on her food, I really look at her. It’s clear that, at one point, she was a startlingly beautiful woman.
Then she meets my eyes. I blink like something’s in them.
She says, I realize that this must be strange for you, too.
No, I say, it’s fine.
So you’re a liar, Mitsuko says.
I’m being honest. Really.
I’m fluent in fine, Mitsuko says. Fine means fucked. Did my son tell you how long he’d be gone?
A month, I say. Maybe two. I don’t know. We didn’t talk too much about it.
Of course not.
But did he tell you?
Tell me what?
How long he’d be gone, I say. Or that he was leaving?
Mitsuko cracks her knuckles on the counter. No, she says. My son neglected to give me that information. But this could be a good thing. I needed to get out of Japan for a while. No sense in rushing back to Tokyo to look at a dying man.
So, I ask, you’re staying here? Until Mike gets back?
My voice cracks, just a bit. But Mitsuko hears it. She grins.
Would that be a problem? she asks.
No, I say. That’s not what I meant.
Then what did you mean?
I’m sorry, I say. I really was just asking.
Mitsuko crosses her arms. She leans on the counter, and her hair slips down her shoulders. I make a point to slow my breathing, to let my shoulders droop just a bit.
Then, I think staying here is exactly what I’ll do, Mitsuko says. I could use the time off. Your place is filthy, but it’ll work until Michael makes it back.
And that’s absolutely O.K., I say. Totally perfect.
Remember, Mitsuko says, you’re the one who let him leave.
You’re right, I say. I’m the one who let him leave.
How generous, Mitsuko says, but then she doesn’t say anything else.
Once she’s finished her plate, she drops it in the sink. She turns on the faucet. Reaches for mine. The omelette was delicious, the sort of thing Mike would cook, because he has always done everything in the kitchen, and I think that this may have been the problem to begin with.
Nice chat, Mitsuko says, and I apologize, but I’m not sure why.
—Bryan Washington (Read the rest here)
Who is this person?
Born in Kentucky and raised in Texas, Bryan Washington is the author of Lot, a book of linked stories set in Houston, and Memorial, a novel that was published in October. His fiction and non-fiction have also appeared in the New York Times, One Story, American Short Fiction, GQ, and more. He is the recipient of a Lambda Literary Award and a New York Public Library Young Lions Award, among other honors.
Write a poem or story that comprises a conversation between two characters. Consider what is unsaid as much as what is spoken aloud.
Alanna Schubach is a fiction writer, freelance journalist, and teacher. Follow her on Twitter @AlannaSchubach and read her work at alannaschubach.com. Send questions, recommendations for future newsletters, and the results of writing prompts (if you’re so inclined) to email@example.com