Do you strain to find little bits of action to enliven your dialogue that rise above “he ran a hand through his hair,” “she raked her fork through her potatoes,” or my favorite riveting action, “he leaned in”? This scene from Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, suggests we may not be giving ourselves enough to work with.
The set-up: Joe Cavalier has escaped Nazi-invaded Prague and landed in New York City, where he hopes to create superhero comic books with his cousin. At an artsy party in a mansion belonging to the family of young Rosa Saks, he hurts his finger in an oddly heroic way. Rosa invites him upstairs to see her paintings.
The question tosses Joe into a quandary. Chabon then provides subtext that infuses the scene to come [portions excised for brevity]:
From the time of his arrival in New York City, he had never permitted himself to speak to a woman for pleasure…he had not come here to flirt with girls…he could justify his own liberty only to the degree that he employed it to earn the freedom of the family he had left behind.
Sounds like a no, right? But then Joe experiences an irritant that drives him into the very sort of scene he’s been trying to avoid: he overhears a German accent. Enraged, Joe says, “I would love to see your work.”
In excerpts from this long “getting to know you” dialogue between Joe and Rosa, which begins on p. 246, watch for two dialogue techniques that effectively bring to life this dialogue: misdirection and modulation.
Misdirection unfolds as if a deck of questions and a deck of answers have been shuffled together incorrectly. Because questions are not paired with their answers, the reader has to pay closer attention to understand what’s going on.
Modulation uses setting and narrative commentary to extend the scene’s complexity. Each spoken line invites the artful layering of meaningful detail or memory.
Yet Chabon isn’t all about craft here; he’s also using the nature of the dialogue to evoke the artistic process itself. Here are some examples.
“Speaking” is not limited to the characters
Watch as the room speaks to Joe of Rosa’s character.
In addition to her tiny, girlish white iron bed, a small dresser, and a nightstand, she had crowded in an easel, a photo enlarger, two bookcases, a drawing table, and a thousand and one items piled atop one another, strewn about, and jammed together with remarkable industry and abandon.
“This is your studio?” Joe said.
A smaller blush this time, at the tips of her ears.
“Also my bedroom,” she said. “But I wasn’t going to ask you to come up to that.”
There was something unmistakably exultant about the mess that Rosa had made. Her bedroom studio was at once the canvas, journal, museum, and midden of her life. She did not “decorate” it; she infused it.
The characters bring the setting to life as the setting brings them to life
We are told to use all of the senses; here Chabon offers good reasons to use them. Rosa goes over to the phonograph and switches it on.
The scratches on the disk popped and crackled like a burning log. Then the air was filled with a festive wheeze of violins.
“Schubert,” said Joe, rocking on his heels. “The Trout.”
“The Trout’s my favorite,” Rosa said.
Something hit him in the face, something soft and alive. Joe brushed at his mouth and came away with a small black moth. It had electric-blue transverse bands on its belly. He shuddered.
Rosa said, “Moths.”
“Moths more than one?”
The moths offer a great example of modulation. That Joe encounters something “soft and alive” in this room is also lovely. Later, one of Joe’s comic book superheroes will be Luna Moth.
Misdirection sets up multiple layers of communication
Rosa points out that there are moths all over the bed, the walls, and the house, and the house before that as well. “That’s where the murder happened,” she drops in, then says, “What’s the matter with your finger?”
This opens the misdirected dialogue. It will be 2-1/2 more pages until Joe thinks to ask about the murder.
Instead, he tells her his finger is sore. She asks to look at it, delivering one of my all-time favorite lines of dialogue: “I was almost a nurse once.”
She examines the hand, telling him she had trained in Spain to be a war nurse. We learn she works at Life magazine. On the next page, she says she can fix his finger, warning that it will hurt “horribly, but only for a second.”
She looked at him, steadily, and licked her lips, and he had just noticed that the pale brown irises of her eyes were flecked with green and gold when abruptly she twisted his hand one way and his finger the other, and, crazing his arm to the elbow with instantaneous veins of lightning and fire, set the joint back into place.
He shook his head, but there were tears rolling down his cheeks.
All elements are eventually interwoven
When Joe gets around to asking about the murder, Rosa asks for a cigarette. The modulation (moths, war nurse) and misdirection (the murder) converge with the scene goal of looking at her artwork.
He lit one for her. She continued to kneel in front of him, and there was something about it that aroused him. It made him feel like a wounded soldier, making time in a field hospital with his pretty American nurse.
“He was a lepidopterist, Moses,” she said.
“He studied moths.”
“He knocked her out with ether and killed her with a pin. Or at least that’s what my father says. He’s probably lying. I made a dreambook about it.”
“A pin,” he said. “Ouch.” He waggled his finger. “It’s good, I think. You fixed it.”
Setting reflects a moment of indelible change
Joe let the dreambook comment drop, but a few paragraphs later, he asks what a dreambook is.
She set the burning cigarette down on a phonograph record that lay on the floor beside her and went to her desk. “Would you like to see one?”
Joe bent over and picked up the cigarette, holding it upright between the very tips of his fingers as though it were a stick of burning dynamite. It had melted a small divot into the second movement of Mendelssohn’s Octet.
Turns out she can’t find the dreambook about the murder, but she shows him another one, and its collage of images, described in detail, inspire and embolden him.
He sat on the bed and finished reading, and then she asked him what he did. Joe permitted himself, for the first time in a year, to consider himself, under the pressure of her interest in him and what he did, an artist.
Sitting on Rosa’s moth-littered bed, he felt a resurgence of all the aches and inspirations of those days when his life had revolved around nothing but Art, when snow fell like the opening piano notes of the Emperor Concerto, and feeling horny reminded him of a passage from Nietzsche, and a thick red-streaked dollop of crimson paint in an otherwise uninteresting Velazquez made him hungry for a piece of rare meat.
Misdirected action creates a scene arc
Earlier in the scene, after Rosa fixed his finger, Joe thought, “This was unquestionably to moment to kiss her.” He considers himself a coward for not following through on the impulse. Now, three pages later, Rosa throws her arms around his neck and he falls backward on the bed. “The sateen coverlet brushed against his cheek like a moth’s wing.”
“Hey!” said Joe. Then she settled her mouth on his and left it there, lips parted, whispering an unintelligible dreambook sentence.
Not all dialogue should be misdirected. It would drive your readers mad. Yet here, it demonstrates the creative way Rosa joins concepts and images in her mind. It shows the way that Joe and Rosa are struggling to connect.
Not all dialogue should be modulated. Sometimes the urgency of a situation calls for a rapid-fire exchange. Here, it creates a slow, contextual build so that when Joe admits aloud for the first time in a year that he is an artist, we understand the way in which Rosa exerted a powerful influence on him.
Suffice to say: if your dialogue is about only what the spoken words are saying, it could probably do a whole lot more. Chabon shows us that great dialogue can convey information, deepen inner conflict, move the plot forward, and build characterization—all at the same time.
What could you add to a dialogue passage in your WIP that could deepen its impact? Could you add subtext? Amp up the setting? Would misdirection or modulation work? Why or why not?
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