Sunday, August 24, 2014

What about the Dialogue No Character Ever Speaks?

Dialogue shapes novels. There’s an unspoken dialogue between a novel and its readers that shapes the quality and impact of fiction.  In Novel Voices, Jennifer Levasseur and Kevin Rabelais interview Siri Hustvedt, who has this to say about the dialogue that keeps us reading fiction:
The reader situates himself somewhere between the immediate here of the world in which he reads and the there of the book. He enters a state that is between himself and the voice of the book. Reading is also entering a dialogue of sorts because a book is nothing until it lives inside the reader, who makes the book come to life.

You can’t have a dialogue without both parties participating. But readers can’t do that unless some things are unsaid, some points never made. How else can readers interpret through the lens of their own memories, experiences, and appetites? Of course no one wants a novel to be an empty blackboard, awaiting the reader’s imprint. But no one wants every detail laid out, either, because that makes it impossible for readers to discover meaning for themselves.

Which factors let readers participate in the experience of fiction?

~ Plot events.

This is restricted to what the characters actually do or execute or say. What they contemplate, how they commiserate, whether they circumnavigate—all that excludes the reader, because it’s talking to rather than with.

~ Dialogue between characters.

Again, this is restricted to what the characters say rather than what they say “lazily,” “cheerfully,” “thoughtfully,” or “stormily.” Once you add adverbs or any other filter, it becomes a lecture—not a dialogue.

~ Subtext.
Pose questions that sound like questions and seemingly definitive statements that imply questions. If you like, write down exactly what the character wants to say. Afterwards, though, revise until your characters sound like real people—dropping hints, insinuating threats, and generally playing games.
~ Ambiguity.

Much as you’d like to, never, ever “tell” readers exactly what you want them to notice, believe, defy, or applaud. Drop clues. Unfurl your plot. Make your characters suffer enough to change. What will readers absorb from that? It’s up to them.
Tip: Let readers participate in the dialogue. After all, it’s why they’re there.

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