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Creating Meaningful Dialogue Out of Thin Air - Guest post by Nicci Kadilak
How to learn to write meaningful dialogues and what that can teach us all in real life.
This guest post is by a fellow Substacker, writer and friend, Nicci Kadilak. I have really enjoyed Nicci’s voice as she writes and asked her to expose the art of writing meaningful dialogue within the context of a novel. It’s one thing to try to have a meaningful conversation. It’s another to write it, looking at all the characters involved, feeling the point of view of both sides of the conversation and then making it readable and engaging. A fascinating exercise. I encourage you to subscribe to Nicci's Substack, Nicci’s Notes, to stay updated regarding her upcoming novel, When We Were Mothers, and to read her reflections on parenting, writing, and being a human in this messy world. She writes from her heart.
When was the last time you had a really satisfying conversation? Who were you talking with? And what made that conversation so enjoyable?
Last weekend while visiting my parents, I talked for almost an hour with Mike, a family member I haven’t seen in nearly a decade. The conversation wound from parenting to politics to education and back again, and when we said our goodbyes I was genuinely disappointed we wouldn’t be able to carry on our dialogue.
Later, I couldn’t resist taking a meta-look to try and figure out exactly why I enjoy talking with Mike so much. We’re not of the same generation, or the same gender. We don’t likely have the same political affiliations or income level. His kids are grown and moved away; mine are still very much under my roof. On paper, we might seem to have little in common. So what is it about Mike that makes me smile when I know he’s on the guest list? And what does this conversation have in common with others I’ve enjoyed?
It boils down to a simple concept: Balance. Balance of airtime between participants, yes, but also balance within oneself.
A balance between knowing your opinions and being open and curious about the other person’s.
A balance between voicing your thoughts and wanting to hear the other person’s take.
A balance between speaking from your own experience and acknowledging that folks with different experiences might come to different conclusions.
Balance is key to having a meaningful dialogue, to walking away from the conversation having moved forward in your understanding of an idea. But, of course, not all conversations are as satisfying as my talks with Mike. Many are frustratingly circular, leaving both parties feeling like their time and energy were wasted. Or maybe one person feels exasperated while the other feels pretty good about the whole thing.
Sometimes that frustration happens when we come to the conversation with opposing agendas or with different conversational styles. I know someone, for example, who plays devil’s advocate at every opportunity, even though he doesn’t believe his own arguments. Conversations with him are infuriating until you get to know his schtick and flow with it.
Life is made up of these scenarios, and many more, and one goal of writing is to portray these conversations in a way that is at once realistic, readable, and engaging. Unfortunately, doing so is much harder than it sounds.
Realistic as my conversation with Mike was, if I pasted a transcript of it into my book, readers would yawn, close the book, and maybe even chuck it into the bin. The natural give-and-take of half-sentences and interruptions would kill readability. The meandering nature of topics might engage a sociologist but would bore the heck out of the general reader.
Luckily, I’m not in the business of transcribing conversations with relatives. But I do write novels, and dialogue is a huge part of my stories. How, then, do I make made-up conversations realistic, readable, and engaging? By asking and answering a series of questions.
I’ll use an excerpt from my as-yet-unpublished novel, When We Were Mothers, to show you what I mean.* When We Were Mothers is a speculative novel centered around a question of reproductive choice. In this world, people are no longer allowed to carry their children, instead growing them in consumer-grade artificial wombs set up in the home nursery. Lucinda is the leader of an underground society seeking to take back that choice. Members of the society secretly forego the mandatory sterilization procedure their daughters are supposed to have as infants, and recently the first generation of such women has begun becoming pregnant and giving birth in secret.
This scene is one of the last holdovers from the first or second draft of the book. It’s survived countless rewrites and edits, two venue changes, the removal of at least one character, and a relocation in the book’s chronology. Is it perfect? No; nothing ever is. But it is likely to appear mostly unchanged in the final published book.
Here are some questions I ask myself to make scenes like this as realistic, readable, and engaging as possible:
When, in the book, does the conversation occur?
This question will help you know how much background information the reader needs for this conversation. Do they know the characters and world well, or are you just introducing one, the other, or both?
This conversation occurs very early on in the book, in scene number two. We haven’t met Astor yet, aside from a text message that suggests she’s been up drinking all night. We don’t know much about the world, only that childbirth is illegal and there is a pregnant woman about to give birth locked away in a birthing suite on the top floor of a public greenhouse.
Where is the conversation happening?
Yes, this is dialogue. But nothing happens in a vacuum. Readers need a hint of setting, and if the setting can work with the dialogue to build a world and move your plot forward, all the better.
Lucinda and Astor have this conversation on the automated level of an all-hours bar. This gives a peek into the world (they order on their mobiles and the drinks appear in a compartment on the table), the secrecy of their conversation (they have to keep their voices down and meet in a place where there won’t be anyone around to overhear), and the fact that Celeste, their pregnant friend, can’t be there because she can’t expose her pregnancy.
By the way, I cut the description of the setting down from about 3 pages in the initial draft to just a paragraph or two in the current form. It’s all about deciding what’s important to the story. Do I need a paragraph describing the bartenders and their actions, when we’ll never see them again? No. A phrase or two that signals we’re at a bar before sunrise will suffice.
What are you, the author, trying to communicate about the themes of your story?
Are you trying to argue for or against an idea? Shed light on something your audience might not have considered, or might have considered a lot? Something else?
For me, the idea of theme came much later in the writing process. I conceived this book (no pun intended) with a particular point of view in mind, and the more I wrote and grew as a human, the more I realized that, rather than to argue my own perspective, the important thing was to show how people can arrive at opposing but valid viewpoints. As I began examining the book at arm’s length, I realized choice and autonomy were the real stars of the show, and I think that comes through.
What is the purpose of this dialogue?
Everything in your book should serve to move your plot forward. But dialogue can also be used to make your characters more three-dimensional and let your readers peek into the world you’ve built.
This dialogue had three main purposes: to introduce Astor; to introduce the conflict between Astor and Lucinda; and to open up the world to the reader. I’ll talk below about the balance between doing these things and not making it obvious to the reader that I’m doing these things.
What are the characters’ emotional states at the start of the conversation, and what should they be afterward?
How you want your characters to develop during this conversation can depend on a lot of things, including what part of the book you’re in. At the beginning, you might be reinforcing the protagonist’s denial, or what James Scott Bell calls the “Argument Against Transformation.” Later on, you might want to show the lightbulb moment where they realize something needs to change and decide to change it. Be sure to also consider the other characters involved. What are their emotional states before and after? What are they trying to get out of the conversation? That can add depth to their character and to the story as a whole.
Lucinda starts this conversation on a high. Her friend is about to have a baby, and she’s going to help deliver. Then Astor comes around to burst her bubble. Lucinda (a) doesn’t have time for that noise and (b) disagrees with Astor. As always, she feels like she needs to convince Astor that their society is doing the right thing and she’s exasperated that they keep talking in circles. She leaves feeling vindicated, but Astor might very well have wound up as frustrated and conflicted as she was when she arrived. She concedes to placate Lucinda and because she knows they’re going into an emotional situation, but her mind hasn’t changed, and Lucinda probably knows that, if she would just admit it.
How nonlinear should you get?
Conversations in the real world are not often Point A to Point B kinds of things. But lots of doublebacks and meanders can frustrate the reader and, frankly, make it hard to write the end of the conversation unless it’s interrupted by something. Here it’s important to balance realism with readability and engagement.
Lucinda and Astor do some conversational dancing here. You can tell there are some old paths they’re treading again and, much like when I chase my toddler around the kitchen island, they go in circles only to turn around and run the same circle in the opposite direction. But I cut down a LOT of the back and forth in revisions and edits and used my gut to tell me how realistic (i.e. nonlinear) I could go without losing the reader.
Would these characters, with this shared knowledge, really say that?
It can be tempting to just stuff world building and exposition into dialogue, but it never works the way we wish it would. If the characters talking already know the thing you’re trying to tell the reader, they won’t come out and explicitly say it. They’ll instead speak from their shared knowledge. To use an example from one of my favorite books, rather than Clare explicitly saying to Henry, “You’re a time traveler and sometimes you just disappear,” she might instead say, “I never know when you’re going to leave or how long you’ll be away.”
In such an early scene that must work hard to show the reader around this world, it was difficult to make the conversation between Lucinda and Astor sound natural. Sometimes that meant moving some of the more explicit pieces of exposition out of dialogue and into narration. Sometimes it meant just massaging the words to make them more indirect. Like all areas, there’s probably still room to grow here for me.
How balanced is the dialogue with respect to transcription, exposition, characterization, and physicality?
And so it comes full circle. No matter what you or your characters have to say, the key here is balance. Especially in early scenes, you have to let your readers into the world of your story without making it painfully obvious what’s what you’re doing. Too much transcription and it can become more like a report. Summarize the more boring parts of the conversation. Use narration to slow down the pace and infuse emotions and point of view. Show the world and the characters indirectly via both narration and dialogue. And, just like physical description of the setting, meter the use of physical response; trust the reader to fill in the blanks.
Balance was the toughest part of this process, and honestly if I put on my editing glasses I’d probably make some tweaks even now that shift this scene’s balance in some way. Fewer rhetorical questions, maybe, or less nodding and shaking of heads. I’ll let you decide how well I did.
Without further ado, here is that scene.
[Astor slides] into the seat opposite Lucinda. Her hair is blue today, shaved on one side and braided over her other shoulder, though nothing holds it in place and it’s already loosening at the ends. Her eyes are red. Has she gotten any sleep at all? “So you think this is it?” she says, gesturing toward the space where Celeste would normally be seated.
Lucinda and her Sisters have known each other forever, attended each other’s births and weddings and graduations. Eventually they will grow old and die together, leaving their children to keep their shared secrets. As the originals, Astor, Lucinda, and Celeste have shared a special closeness. Play dates during their elementary school days, bowling and movies as teens, exercise classes and dinner parties as they’ve grown. Subdued, unfrequented, all-hours Bel’s is the latest place they’ve settled – the perfect place to talk without being overheard. Maybe next time they’re here, things will be back to normal and Celeste will be able to come.
Normal. There’s that word again. She shakes the echo from her mind and turns to Astor. “It just might be. You excited?”
“Sure, I guess,” Astor replies, retrieving a glass filled with ice and a dark liquid from the compartment and taking a long pull. Whether it’s coffee, bourbon, or both, Lucinda can’t tell.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Lucinda asks.
Astor shrugs, her upper lip curling. “You know how I feel about this shit, Lucinda.”
Sisters begin preparing for what the Mothers call "the beautiful and natural act of childbearing” from their earliest days. Astor, though, has never been very enthusiastic about the idea, and it’s always felt like Lucinda’s job to convince her their path is the right one. Lucinda was certain after watching their Sisters give birth, Astor would warm up to the beauty of it all. But if anything, the opposite has happened.
Lucinda leans close and keeps her volume down. “Astor. After all we’ve seen, you don’t think it’s amazing what our bodies can do?” Why ask it as a question? She already knows the answer.
The silence between them stretches. The wallscreen flashes with an advertisement, the sound combining with the bar’s ambient music in an unintelligible jumble. Astor shrugs. “It all just seems unnecessarily hard.”
“What?” Lucinda says, as if this conversation hasn’t played out in a hundred different ways over the years.
“Come on, Lucinda. The hiding. The isolation. Knowing the agony you have waiting for you at the end. The risk to your life and the baby’s. If you just did things the modern way, you’d avoid all that.”
It’s not that Astor’s points aren’t valid. Nothing about this life has been easy. Lucinda has spent most of her life terrified and lonely, from having monthly cycles when all the women around her were safeguarded, to going through pregnancy and having her baby surrounded by people who had never experienced someone giving birth before. But their work is important. Bringing this essential function back to humanity, taking back their natural-given capabilities, and helping others do the same – that has validated the struggle a hundred times over, and she knows their Sisters would agree.
Lucinda can’t wait until Celeste can join them again. She’s the perfect buffer, always keeping the peace even when Astor wants to fight.
“Astor,” Lucinda says slowly. “We both know that ninety-nine percent of the time, things go just fine.”
“Ninety-nine-percent is not one hundred percent.” Astor empties her drink and, after a few taps on her mobile, another appears. “Why risk it if you don’t have to? Look at Myles and Peter. They go to an appointment, pick a gender, combine their DNA exactly how they want, then pop the cartridge into the nursery womb and watch the whole thing as it happens. Nine months later, the baby comes out. Perfect and completely risk-free.”
“You sound like an infomercial. Yes, okay. For them, that’s a great solution. But what about someone who wants to feel her child grow inside her?” Lucinda can’t help touching her belly, remembering the fullness and promise of Serafina growing within. “Shouldn’t she be able to make that decision on her own?”
Astor presses her fingers to her temples and stares down into her drink. “Lucinda. Unexpected things happen all the time in nature. Just look at what happened with—” Astor stops abruptly. “Sorry,” she says.
Lucinda doesn’t need a reminder from Astor to call up that day. It’s always there, close enough to touch. Selective termination, her mother called it, her voice sickeningly flat and emotionless. There can only be one. Lucinda can still taste Zavi’s tears mingling with hers, can still feel the cramps and the bleeding and the unrelenting grief for who Serafina’s twin might have grown to be.
She swallows, blinking away the threatening tears, angry at the cheering fans on the wallscreen, which continues playing though the middle-aged man and his beer are gone.
Lucinda sniffs. “So, because things might, maybe, possibly go wrong, we should take the decision out of a mother’s hands?” she demands.
Astor’s eyes rise to meet Lucinda’s. “And because someone might, maybe, possibly want to carry a baby we should break the law and make a decision for her that she will have to carry around forever?”
“At least then she’ll be able to choose for herself,” says Lucinda.
Astor suddenly looks half her age, indignation plastered on her face. “Well, I’d prefer not to have to live a life of secrecy. The monthly bloodbath, the secret meetings, the—”
Lucinda blinks. “The sisterhood? The community? The truth?”
Astor sighs and looks past Lucinda, toward the couple in the booth. “It’s all fine and good for the rest of you. You’re perfectly happy to incubate humans inside your bodies, and you have men to help you make these humans. It’s not like that for me. No thank you, on both counts.” Another dark drink has appeared in front of Astor and she raises it to her lips. Her eyes are still puffy, but the redness is fading.
Lucinda thinks of all the women, ignorant to what the Council decided on their behalf before they were born. Women who have been made to forget what their bodies are capable of. Astor can choose to have a baby or not, with or without a partner. That’s the whole point. How does she not see that? “You might be upset the decision was made for you,” says Lucinda. “But it’s better than the other way around.”
“Says you. Our mothers made the unilateral decision to condemn us to a life of hiding and risk and pain, and now we are expected to do the same to our daughters. How fair is it to thrust little girls into this situation? To force them to lie, to hide, to break the law, without giving them a choice?”
Lucinda stares in disbelief. Astor knows the history as well as anybody. She couldn’t possibly think it’s right to sterilize infants who don’t have the capacity for consent. “Choice? Astor. Don’t you realize the irony of what you’re saying? After all these years, I would think you would understand that our mothers gave us choice. They didn’t take it away.”
Astor shakes her head once more. “I should have just kept quiet,” she mutters.
Lucinda opens her mouth to speak but closes it again. Astor has always been different from the others, but she’s never been this blunt about her feelings before. They both grew up saying the same pledge, learning the same history. How could they have such different views on the very thing that binds them? And why now, when they’re about to help bring a new life into the world?
The music plays on, oblivious to their silence. One song ends and another begins, and Lucinda watches Astor, whose eyes stay fixed on the icy drink cupped between her hands. When she finally looks up her eyes are glossy. “What’s done is done,” she eventually says, her voice wooden. “There’s nothing I can do about it. I know that. I just worry about you guys.” She swallows. “And I wish I could just be normal.”
“I know, Sister,” Lucinda says, reaching across the table and taking Astor’s cold fingers in her own. “But we always get through things together, right?”
Astor nods, blinking. “Yeah. We do.”
Finally, Astor is seeing reason. “And, listen. Who knows? Maybe one day you’ll find a Sister who’s happy to incubate a human for you.” She looks across the table with a mischievous smile.
Astor rolls her eyes. “Fat chance. Haven’t met a Sister yet that I’d want to incubate a human with. And I think I’ve tried all the available ones.” A rueful grin passes across her face. “Though, um, I did just start seeing someone.”
Lucinda’s eyes widen. “What? Why haven’t I heard about this someone?” she says.
She’s opening her mouth to grill Astor about her new girlfriend when her mobile buzzes on the table.
Can you come back? Please? I think something’s wrong.
*Note that these thoughts are assembled from my work writing upmarket and commercial pieces with today’s inattentive, dopamine-addicted reader in mind. So, engagement, intrigue, and pacing are a huge part of my motivation. If your work is super-literary, or if you don’t particularly care whether or not readers like your work, feel free to just keep on keepin’ on.
About the author, Nicci Kadilak:
Nicci Kadilak is a writer, mom, educator, and community volunteer with a love for math and a disdain for inequity. She writes articles, stories, and books that dig deep into complex emotions about family, motherhood, and what it means to live in today’s society. Through it all, she does her best to keep her sense of humor. She is currently querying her contemporary speculative novel, When We Were Mothers.
Please check out Nicci’s Substack and subscribe to receive word of when her novel will come out: Nicci’s Notes