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Writing about doing more than one thing at a time

William Sloane, in “The Craft of Writing” says:

There is a tentative rule that pertains to all fiction dialogue. It must do more than one thing at a time or it is too inert for the purposes of fiction. this may sound harsh, but I consider it an essential discipline.

I like multi-tasking: listening to Italian podcasts while cooking, sorting the laundry while I set the noodles to boil, reading a book while I soak my feet, folding laundry when I am on a longish call.

But when it comes to writing, this sort of multi-tasking is hard to do. Sloane is essentially asking for dialogue that characterizes, provides exposition, sets the scene, advances the action, foreshadows, and so on, at the same time. Well, at least does a bare-minimum of two of these things.

Problem with being an instinctive writer is you put in a dialogue when you hear your characters speak, and to hell with rules, tentative, or otherwise.

But when an instinctive writer like me sits on the second draft, such rules are useful. I can measure my dialogue, watch whether it does at least two things, (I haven’t gone beyond 3, so far). And it makes a difference. Dialogues may sound natural, but to get them to do that, you need to carve away at them, adding, subtracting, justifying each word. Much like most editing, I suppose.

The best dialogues, in my opinion, are not the ones you remember long after, those you quote, but those that melt into the fabric of the story, creating barely a ripple. It is the fabric on which you run your hands, the fabric you smell, the fabric you wrap around your head and walk in a woolly cloud. Dialogue is but some threads in its warp and weft.

I’m reading Ali Smith‘s Other Stories and Other stories, and her stories are sprinkled with dialogues without inverted commas, that begin in the middle of a paragraph and end in the middle of the next. I’m too lazy to copy excerpts, so those of you who like short stories and have not read her, go pick up this book. Won’t regret it, I promise.

It is this kind of writing that makes me think of multi-tasking more in real life so I can save time to read. I’m running out of time. That said, time to get on with the dialogue in my next story. Considering my character is a woman who is meeting her autistic gay love for the first time in nearly four decades, I have quite a task at hand.

Damyanti Biswas

Damyanti Biswas is the author of You Beneath Your Skin and numerous short stories that have been published in magazines and anthologies in the US, the UK, and Asia. She has been shortlisted for Best Small Fictions and Bath Novel Awards and is co-editor of the Forge Literary Magazine. Her forthcoming literary crime thriller, The Blue Bar is represented by Lucienne Diver from The Knight Agency, and will be published by Thomas & Mercer on January 1, 2023.

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