I would only order coffee under one of two circumstances. If C-- had arrived early and I'd seen her at a table, my first destination would be their table. Then, they might invite me to go and order coffee. At that point, I would. Otherwise, and in more comfortable circumstances, I would need to arrive early. Then, I could comfortably order and be the one to invite C-- to do the same.
I made sure I was about forty-five minutes early.
The blonde woman at the counter in a dark brown polo held a practiced smile, and thankfully [as I'm sure it was to her], I already knew what I wanted.
"What can I get for ya?" The enthusiasm had a slight undertone of having woken up too early.
"Could I get a medium Americano, please?" My speech sounded unintentionally rushed and my face probably looked apologetic.
"Uhm!" She looked at her screen and tapped with her manicured nails. They had a black and teal checkered pattern on them.
"Oh! Your nails are lovely, did you do those yourself?" I looked down at them while fishing my wallet out of my backpack.
"Yes! I actually got some of those stickers that actually worked! Any room?" The woman's face seemed to relax.
"No no, I'm fine! I get it, I could never get those stickers to work. They would not stay!" We both laughed and, as my card was processing, I fished out some paper money for the tip jar.
"You've got to get a good top coat!" She lowered her voice and giggled as though she were telling me a secret in a school hallway.
Feeling slightly better after getting only six hours of sleep the previous night myself, I felt as much comfort in this conversation as I knew I would from the warmth of the bitter espresso, but I still had to prepare. I selected a table within view of the door and pulled out two books and my laptop. I had the relevant pages marked with sticky notes, and there was an outlet underneath where I was sitting.
I was as prepared for the meeting as I could be and I almost regretted arriving early. Then again, these opportunities were helpful, and most of my clients had no choice but to request virtual meetings. Most of them lived out of state or, even if they lived nearby, the margin of error in a face-to-face interaction was too high to risk.
I busied myself by responding to emails and messages I'd received over the past hour, some wondering why I was up so early on a Saturday.
C-- was early too, by about ten mintues. Perhaps they'd had the same thought processes as I did.
"Hiiii! It's so good to see you!" They were that combination of professional, but friendly. Even though they were my client, I wanted to get along well with them. We firmly shook hands, looking at each other like we were memorizing each other's features for a quiz. "Did you want to order something?"
"Yeah! Let me just put my stuff down first." Their scarf and jacket was a little heavy for the building, and I gave them the out to order, but I didn't hear what they'd gotten. C-- seemed nice, but just as apprehensive as I was.
I opened the tab with their book chapters on my computers and turned to a section with heavy light blue markings and long comments posted on them. I started swiftly and silently tapping my fingers on the table, usually a sign that I was waiting for something and, in front of a computer, that's not an out of place gesture. Why am I feeling anxious? They're perfectly nice. Don't let them know you're feeling anxious or they won't take you seriously. Intuitively, I knew this wasn't true, but "what ifs" were still something I was working on.
While C-- was waiting on their coffee, we traded small talk, and I noticed the force in their smile. I was the only person in the room they were even slightly familiar with, and I was tasked with being their "evaluator". So, when I saw the way they wrung their hands, I knew where I stood.
"So...uhm...yeah, I wanted to talk to you about some of your comments. I wanted to make sure that I was understanding you correctly." I wouldn't blame them for having practiced that one in the mirror.
"Yeah, yeah, of course. I pulled up this one, and it's probably the wording I used most often, do you want to start here or somewhere else?" I stuttered slightly, but C-- seemed to take comfort in it. They gently leaned over to take a closer look at my screen.
"Actually, yeah! That's perfect!" They smoothly shifted their posture to face me directly and started gesticulating. "I think I kind of get it, but I just need some further clarity."
"Of course, so this chapter is mostly dialogue." C-- nodded quickly, now fully engaged in what I was saying. "I noticed that there weren't a lot of dialogue tags, so I'm seeing a lot of what people are saying, but I have no idea what they're doing. Like, what they're saying does help me to learn more about them and their story, but dialogue isn't a static thing. People move around. Their expressions change. They have inflections. There's a form of delivery there, and I feel like you know what it is, but I'm at a disadvantage here. You see what I mean?" I was used to using these words. They felt natural to me, but what escaped my mouth felt like energy and enthusiasm, and while this is what I hoped for, self-awareness reared its helpful head, telling me that I speak a little too fast when I'm talking about something I know a lot about or enjoy. "I'm sorry, is this helping?"
My brow furrowed, and for C--, there seemed to be some clarity. By asking them if I was helping, by turning that back around to them, I was no longer an authority figure they needed to impress. I hoped so, anyway. They seemed to relax a little further.
"Yeah, no, and I see what you're saying. I guess I thought that I implied those actions, those inflections, that stuff, through the words alone." They started to rest their head in one hand on the table when their name was called at the counter.
We shared a laugh at being broken from our conversation.
"So," we started back in upon their return, "I wanted to go back and look to what you want this dialogue to accomplish. From there, you can make a decision about how you want to work this, and you might even want to re-work this a little bit. I marked a page from this book." I held up Reading Like a Writer (2006). "Francine Prose has an entire chapter on dialogue, and I thought this section would be pertinent." I tried to hold the book in the least awkward way possible, but my awkwardness seemed like a bit of a blessing.
I pointed out how, early in the chapter, Prose states that dialogue should ideally achieve some purpose, and while some uses for dialogue as exposition can work, it doesn't always. I wanted to encourage C-- to broaden their perspective on what dialogue could accomplish. I directed C-- to this excerpt:
"Even when novice writers avoid the sort of dialogue that is essentially exposition framed by quotation marks, the dialogue they do write often serves a single purpose--that is, to advance the plot--rather than the numerous simultaneous aims that it can accomplish."
"My question to you is this. Why do we have conversations?" The book was turned over and my hands were placed in front of me.
"To learn from each other?"
"Because we want something?" I nodded, urging her to continue.
"Because we want to break a silence." C--'s eyes sparkled, enjoying the game.
"To develop a relationship of some kind."
" To get coffee."
"To try and figure out someone's intentions." We spoke quickly, almost wanting to beat one another. "Dialogue tags can help with this. We don't just have conversations to advance a story in real life. Actually, figuratively speaking, I guess we do. Anyway, conversations have other goals or they can just be conversations. While we don't need dialogue tags all the time, a long stretch of conversation can work against you, you see what I mean?" I felt like I was understood, and C-- sipped their drink, seeming to contemplate my words.
"I see what you're saying, and you're right, this doesn't reflect how someone would actually talk. I see how believability would also factor into that. Like you said, at this point, it seems to just be a plot device, but that's not realistic. Do my conversations always have to reflect how they'd actually look in real life?" C-- stretched a little bit, but still kept their eyes on me, indicating that they were listening to what I had to say. I was relieved that everything was setting in.
"That's a tough question because, in writing, it's not about what you have to do. It's about the effect you're creating. So, you probably notice when you read things that people speak a lot more eloquently or some of their responses sound canned. Some of my responses probably sound canned!" I grinned and scratched the back of my neck. "Not really, but there are things that a person who's reading your dialogue will need to know in order to follow your story. That's what I'm trying to get at. Makes sense?" I didn't want to demand an affirmative, so I hoped C-- was being honest when they nodded.
"I think so. There are a few things that I want to do, and I want to try and fix this."
We spent the remainder of our meeting looking at dialogue from other authors. While we anticipated that we'd be able to talk about more, we found the conversation on dialogue to be ultimately productive. I liked C-- and I liked their story. I looked forward to how it would develop in the coming weeks. Even better, we parted with a greater understanding of each other than when we'd walked in that day.
Somehow, I knew I wouldn't have to worry about the most polite time to order coffee next time.
Thank you to everyone who has given me feedback on Purposeful Prose thus far!
I decided to take a different approach to this post as it felt like a more effective way to deliver this information. Prose's chapter on dialogue gives some excellent readings on different types of dialogue and what dialogue can achieve, so I wanted to offer something to read into. I hope that this was successful!
If you want to follow along with my conversation on Reading Like a Writer and other books that I've gone through, I highly recommend getting your copy at a local independent bookstore or through Bookshop.org, where proceeds from your orders go to local independent bookstores or libraries. You can even pick the bookstore if you have one in mind!
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As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts!
Prose, F. (2006). Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them (P.S.). Union Books.