Over the weekend I read a fantastic adult novel by Rainbow Rowell called Attachments. If you’ve read her YA debut Eleanor & Park (and really, if you haven’t, please hurry to your local bookstore and pick it up — it’s amazing), then you’re probably already aware of what an amazing writer Rainbow Rowell is, and you also probably know that she creates lovably flawed characters who engage in awesome, witty, REAL conversations. This, I think, is a gift.
Attachments is a novel with an interesting and unique format. Here’s the Goodreads summary, just so you have an idea of what’s going on…
Beth and Jennifer know their company monitors their office e-mail. But the women still spend all day sending each other messages, gossiping about their coworkers at the newspaper and baring their personal lives like an open book. Jennifer tells Beth everything she can’t seem to tell her husband about her anxieties over starting a family. And Beth tells Jennifer everything, period. When Lincoln applied to be an Internet security officer, he hardly imagined he’d be sifting through other people’s inboxes like some sort of electronic Peeping Tom. Lincoln is supposed to turn people in for misusing company e-mail, but he can’t quite bring himself to crack down on Beth and Jennifer. He can’t help but be entertained -and captivated- by their stories. But by the time Lincoln realizes he’s falling for Beth, it’s way too late for him to ever introduce himself. What would he say to her? “Hi, I’m the guy who reads your e-mail, and also, I love you.” After a series of close encounters and missed connections, Lincoln decides it’s time to muster the courage to follow his heart… even if he can’t see exactly where it’s leading him.
One of the things that struck me about Attachments was the bond between Jennifer and Beth. Their relationship unfolds in a series of email conversations (read by Lincoln) and that’s all we get from them. We never see them chatting in a coffee shop, or talking in a nail salon, or gossiping in the break room at the newspaper. Their interactions are all email, and they look something like this:
That is to say, there are no inner monologues, no dialogue tags, no descriptive beats, no awkward pauses or long sighs or knowing chuckles — none of the stuff that clogs up conversations in traditionally-written novels. All we know of Jennifer and Beth are the words they type to one another and yet, we get to know them really well. I was sort of blown away when I realized this.
See, I consider dialogue to be one of my writerly strengths. I think I have an eye (ear?) for flow and organic word choice. I think conversations between my characters read like real conversations between real people, and I think it’s fairly easy to get to know them based on how they talk and interact. That said, I definitely incorporate tags and supportive narrative and the occasional adverb (*gasp*) into dialogue I write. These devices are important and I will always use them, but I wondered what it would be like to write conversations like those of Jennifer and Beth. Words, clean and simple.
As an experiment, I tried it with a scene in my WiP. Words, alternating between two characters. Though it was challenging at first, I did not let myself write he said, or she sighed, or he squeezed her hand. There were no inner monologues. There was no supportive narrative. Just words, back and forth — statement, response, question, response, statement, response, etc.
And you know… It was kind of fun. And quick! The conversation flowed more easily than usual. The characters were clever and their banter felt spontaneous and sincere and natural. I didn’t have to try so hard. Best of all, I could truly see who the characters were in the words they spoke.
Of course, I’m not writing a story about inner-office friendships, and my story doesn’t include email at all, so I did eventually go back and insert the traditional dialogue tags and beats and descriptions, all the nuanced stuff that normally has me biting my nails and running for the jelly beans when I’m trying to draft a conversation. Imagine my surprise when, again, this part of the process came more easily. Since I already had the entire discussion laid out, the pieces that needed to be augmented with additional narrative were clear. All I had to do was tuck those bits in, and I ended up with a pretty engaging conversation.
So… I’m thinking I may have a new method for writing dialogue. Huh.
Tell me… Do you have any tips for drafting dialogue?