The art of withholding
I’m working on a book. In long-form fiction, many writers face two conditions:
1. Characters need to talk a lot over the course of the book to advance plot, establish scene, develop personalities, and do much of the work of story.
2. Conversation, particularly when it must be conveyed in writing many times, is often tremendously boring and repetitive.
Together, these make for a real dilemma, and complicate the task of writing voices: not only do the voices have to sound correctly and fit within the non-dialogic (e.g. stuff not in quotes) narration of the book, but they also have to be changing enough that their existence doesn’t become a valueless bore.
This is a straightforward Craft Diary, and one most applicable to people completely fresh to the writing game: trying to draft a story for the first time, struggling with how people write decent dialogue at all, et cetera. The overarching principle here: sit back, wait, and let your characters move slowly. That’s the best way I’ve found to stumble upon quirks worth conveying in writing and lace your work with abromidic authenticity.
* * *
When characters aren’t speaking deep into the night, sussing out the universe’s metaphysical mysteries with glasses of wine, they’re likely, though not always, holding the kinds of banal exchanges we all talk through every day. I ask for a coffee. Please and thank you. When’s the plumber coming again? Goddammit, that fucking garbage truck at 4:45 in the morning. Are we ever going to live somewhere quiet?
Think of all the speech in your life that’s almost purely utilitarian; even the tender whispers of a lover are, if transcribed, probably not very interesting. They’re awesome, or terrifying, or disappointingly neither, because a naked person is whispering in your ear. And then all the routine exchanges we have each day, to get through each day—so much of what we say has little aesthetic value on its own.
Routine discursive events often don’t make even the first draft. They’re part of the world of the story—the diegetic world, in narratological lingo—just like they’re part of ours, but writers and readers don’t come to fiction to hear people order drinks and complain about Bank of America’s UI. We get that the characters have these conversations, but we don’t expect to read them narrated or transcribed each time, just as we don’t expect to hear accounts of every time they use the toilet.
The banal, though, can be an excellent chance for the writer to practice the art of withholding. An interaction that requires, say, two salvos on most days can be sat on, let live, and potentially grow into a much more telling episode.
Example. In the following scene, the main character of my book has opened the door of her apartment to let her friend in. He says hello, walks through the room, and sits down. We can write that in one sentence—I just did. But if you let your characters have their secrets, or even just responses that don’t totally answer others’ questions, you can learn a lot more about who these people are:
“Goodday, Emmy,” he says, leaning into his first step through the doorway. He carries a black leather-bound sketchbook tight to his chest, bear-hugging it up almost to the start of his neck. It can’t be any less than 11 by 14. She checks for a bag, something to hold pens or pencils or god knows what else. Nothing. Will’s never been an artist, not that she knows of.
She closes the door behind him as he hops to the living room. “What’s the book?”
“Plans for the Master Project.”
“Eh. Roughly, I guess.”
He eases down into the couch, a sort of half-squat. She sits beside him.
“Will, this Master Project…”
“I don’t want to talk about it, honestly. There’s an integrity in silitude.”
“Silence and solitude in one integrative unit,” he says, weaving his fingers together into a kind of globe. “I fear, of course, that the practice of silitude casts a capitalistic, product-derivative air upon the artistic process. But perfection is a shallow ghost.” Sighs. “This package of quiet and concentration… it’s rare and beautiful. Veritably beautiful, the beauty that’s been commodified and fetishized and appreciated more as buzzword than gut-annihilating-slash-building quality that it is in the actual world.”
“So I’m practicing it in relation to the MP. It aids the flow, and the flow is something I’m not ashamed to want to maximize.”
“Master Project. Apologies—I need to shorten it sometimes so as not to be cumbersome.”
She nods again. Will stands and hangs on to the sketchbook. He wraps it around and cradles it with both hands against his lumbar as he walks to the kitchen. “Want a beer?”
We wouldn’t witness that kind of exchange if it didn’t begin with a clumsiness that threatens to kill it; the reticence and complexity that almost strangles conversation makes it worth listening to when it overcomes its near-death moment. When you need to create people from dust in your fictional world, you can learn a lot by leaning on moments of everyday exchange that aren’t quite right, and letting characters jump through the hole created by unsatisfying answers. They ask more questions. They discover things. And as a writer, you can build out complex personalities without having to stick these poor creatures into contrived situations: they’re just going about their days. In life, these sorts of clunky exchanges make you cringe; they might do that in fiction, too, but in fiction they’re invaluable craft assets.
Characters’ withholding in dialogue also has a rhythmic advantage, which is sometimes a comedic one, too. Conversations that don’t go smoothly can help set pace and potentially get the timing right for a joke—or at least a humor-like moment—just as a rapid-fire, unremarkable exchange can speed up the pace and convey a sense of unthinking, machine-like speed in the narrative. Performance experience helps when you want to get these rhythms right: you can’t get very far in music or theater or dance without developing an instinct for what needs to be dwelt upon, what needs to be clipped, what needs to be performed exactly as prescribed, without even the subtlest embellishment.
Conventionally, you as a writer ask if a conversation in your project moves the story along, either by connecting plot/narrative points or building character. If yes, it stays; if no, it goes. This is the kind of Occam’s Razor that American writers in particular get used to applying to their work, voluntarily or otherwise. Of course, you probably want everyday moments of talk in your project, and a good way to get those moments to both do something in fiction and still seem like moments of truthfulness is let characters hold back a bit of information for a dialogic volley more than you’d expect, or not really answer an ostensibly simple question, or, because they’re tired or hung-over or waiting for a call from the hospital or just came, say something slightly bizarre that opens up the story.
In the third paragraph of this Craft Diary, right after the section break at the top:
I ask for a coffee. Please and thank you. When’s the plumber coming again? Goddammit, that fucking garbage truck at 4:45 in the morning. Are we ever going to live somewhere quiet?
even my last example of pedestrian speech became a seed of story. Are we ever going to live somewhere quiet?—an unexpectedly promising beginning, and all from complaining about that fucking garbage truck out the window.
This is a joy of life, too—watching tiny moments of strangeness and delay create new worlds that we couldn’t have anticipated. Take it for all it’s worth in writing. ■