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The Blue Highway to Failure

Gary Miller


In prepping for last night's Writers for Recovery workshop, I considered a request a participant had made a couple of weeks back. He was struggling with dialogue, and he wanted some good, commonsense pointers that could help him do a better job with it. That was a request I felt sure I could fulfill. So I started looking for good materials.

Now, if you've read my posts before, you know I'm a huge fan of Howard Norman. And face it, he's one of the best dialogue writers alive. I decided to look through his work to find some good dialogue I could use as a teaching tool. I didn't figure it would take long, and I was right. 

I settled on a passage that comes early on in The Bird Artist, when Fabian Vas's mother is trying to convince him to marry his fourth cousin, Cora Holley, whom he has never met. The dialogue is simply magnificent, with flavors of irony and sarcasm, pettiness and love, along with powerful—and deliberate—entrances, exits, and physical gestures. Sure, it was a bit complex—more blue highway than interstate as far as purpose and direction were concerned. But why not use the best example I could find?

I had the text I needed, and devised a great task for participants to learn how dialogue works--they could label lines of dialogue according to whether they expressed agreement among speakers, disagreement among speakers, changes of subject, or silence. After applying these labels, students would understand these four great options for creating variety in dialogue.

I photocopied the pages of text, made my way to Burlington, and, at the appropriate moment, distributed the copies, explained the process, and began to read. As I did, danger signs began to arise—sure this text was magnificent, but it was also damned complicated, and represented extreme subtlety. The writers in the class, while all extremely talented, were nonetheless beginners, and this might be too much to ask of them. Still, there was nothing to do but move on, and I did.

I decided to walk them through the text, joining with them as we marked the first page or so of dialogue. That's when I discovered that the pooch was utterly screwed. Not only did the students struggle to annotate the dialogue correctly; so did I The fact was that most lines of dialogue were neither fish nor fowl—hybrids of disagreement or agreement, statements that might be ironic, but could be taken as serious, and lines that were strictly neutral, and didn't apply to any category at all.

After 10 more minutes, I did what I had to do: I stopped the process and apologized profusely. To my relief (but not my surprise) everyone was completely gracious about it. And now, I have a better appreciation of 1) Howard Norman's dialogue 2) better teacher preparation, and 3) the value of a direct approach, especially with beginning writers. The interstate might not be as exciting as the blue highways, but sometimes the direct way is the best way.