Tension, Dialogue, and the Mundane

By Elizabeth Engstrom

How much mundane is too much mundane?

You never see James Bond brush his teeth, although we all know he didn’t get that seductive smile without good dental hygiene.

If you go with the theory—as I do—that there must be tension in every sentence, conflict (both internal and external) in every scene, then tooth brushing is quite out of the question, unless there’s a handgun on the countertop and someone hiding behind the shower curtain.

But even the mundane can be tension-filled, as I’m discovering in my new passion for the Showtime series Ray Donovan. No spoilers here, but if you want to see very interesting character building, this is the series. My husband hates it and can’t understand why I would spend a minute watching it, but I don’t just watch it, I study it.

For example, the wife asks the husband: “Are you cheating on me?” And he lies. He doesn’t avoid the question or evade with “Why would you ask me such a question?” or some such nonsense (that we have seen a million times before), he just lies. Without hesitation, he simply says, “No.”

In another mundane mother/daughter scene, the daughter asks the mother, “Are you cheating on Dad?” and instead of going to her and comforting her insecurities, saying “Oh, honey, no, of course not, we love each other, I would never do something like that,” or some such nonsense (that we have seen a million times before), the mother just walks away without answering.

She walks away without answering. A whole book could be written about that singular pause. Dialogue at its most brilliant, without saying a word.

This is the point in writing where divorcing yourself from your character is the most important. You and I would never speak that dialogue in real life. If asked those questions, whether or not we were guilty, we would say too much. We would go on and on, justifying and questioning and reasoning and comforting, or whatever. But if we’re to write good characters who have the flaws that readers want to adventure into, we can’t let too much of who we really are leak onto the page. ray

If you haven’t seen Ray Donovan, give it a go.  It’s pretty rough-and-tumble, the way I like it. It stars Liev Schreiber and the incomparable Jon Voight. Study the dialogue. It’s masterful. This week I learned that good dialogue doesn’t need words.

One thought on “Tension, Dialogue, and the Mundane

  1. I’ve watched Ray Donovan a couple of times and loved it, for exactly the reasons you relate.

    Silence as dialogue / answer as non-answer: Among the small incidents of my life that left lasting marks was the time someone answered me with silence and drew a line under it. I was at work in the oil field, in a truck with the crew I worked with, on the way to a well location. The foreman, Earl, had just related a story about an in-law who had conned him out of some money — a lot of money — and gotten away with it. The cops weren’t going to do anything or couldn’t. So Earl took a three-foot-long cheater pipe with a plug of concrete in one end and put the guy in the hospital. I asked Earl if he felt better after doing that. He didn’t answer. I asked him again and he said, “Did you ever get the feeling you weren’t going to get an answer?”

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