A Novel Approach: Number 18: Dialogue as Short Story

It all started with a phone call.
My father’s voice, quavery with excitement, crackles down the line.
“Good news, Nadezhda. I’m getting married!”
I remember the rush of blood to my head. Please let it be a joke! Oh, he’s gone bonkers! Oh, you foolish old man! But I don’t say any of those things.
“Oh, that’s nice, Pappa,” I say.
“Yes, yes. She is coming with her son from Ukraina. Ternopil in Ukraina.”….
Her name is Valentina, he tells me. But she is more like Venus. “Botticelli’s Venus rising from waves. Golden hair. Charming eyes. Superior breasts. When you see her you will understand.”
The grown-up in me is indulgent. How sweet, this last late flowering of love. The daughter in me is outraged. The traitor! The randy old beast! And our mother barely two years dead. I am angry and curious. I can’t wait to see her, this woman who is usurping my mother.
“She sounds gorgeous. When can I meet her?”
“After marriage you can meet.”
From A Short History of Tractors In Ukrainian, Marina Lewycka, Penguin, 2005.

After you finish chuckling, it’s a good time to go back to review Chapter 7, the boring one about story arc. The classic story arc is “protagonist + problem = solution, followed by new disaster.” Then go back over the last one, Chapter 17, in which the novel idea is advanced that you need to know what you are writing about. Then re-read the passages above.

You will see that this dialogue exchange is itself a short story. It is divisible by three: 1. Crazy dad is dishonoring recently deceased mom by marrying a girl from their home country who is enough younger than him to bring her own son to the deal. 2. Daughter settles on solution: talk crazy dad out of the marriage by meeting the trophy bride. 3. Dad wrecks solution.

(As a lagniappe, Lewycka also weaves in Dad’s immigrant English and Daughter’s torn feelings).

Point: Approach writing dialogue passages as if you are writing a short story. Even if it is only a few pages long, a dialogue passage should contain what is present when human beings have conversations: a beginning, a middle, and an end, a point, a counterpoint, and a cliff-hanger. It should use phrases and cadences that people use when they talk, which is rarely more than two sentences at a time before pausing for a reply. And, if possible, it should shed some light on more than just the bare words spoken aloud. For example, not only does daughter listen to and answer her demented dad, she also envisions the putative replacement for dear barely-cold mother with images that leave no doubt about her opinion – don’t let Dad get in the clutches of this gold digger! You learn as much about her as about Dad.
After you tidy up your dialogue story you will go on to weave it into the entire chapter and into the book. It will help you platform all that follows or will help you flesh out what has been raised before. On the other hand, if you omit any of the elements, a reader will wonder why it was written or, at the least, feel as if something is missing. For example, if instead of ‘After marriage you can meet,” Dad had said “Okay, you can meet her tomorrow,” the conflict would have evaporated and the reader would have been left to wonder why the passage was included at all.
A good rule of thumb is ‘if dialogue will advance the story, write it.’ If you can’t write it, it probably won’t advance your story.

Give it a try, tomorrow, when you do your thousand words.

Jack