No One Understands What You’re Saying

grandma and jill
grandma and jill

For years my grandmother worked at the edge of an orange grove in a wooden shack built on blocks and painted red. Spiders were always scuttling down the walls and grove workers milled about outside. She kept the books. Every morning she dressed for the office, sat with perfect posture all day long, and smoked.

She never complained, and the men all called her ma’am and someone made sure fresh flowers were on her desk.

At least, that’s the way it was whenever I went there with her. And she never said whether she liked this life more or less than her life as a dancing girl, walking down stairs on stage in feathers and beads.

As best I remember my grandmother complained about only three things, the waitress bringing her a full cup of coffee when she’d asked for a half, whether or not I was standing up straight, and my mother.

I couldn’t understand what the complaint actually was. She’d hear or see something my mom had done, and my grandmother would place a hand over her heart and mutter my mom’s name.

If my mom saw this, she’d start shouting, and every time I would listen. I’d take apart every sentence and try to understand. I knew they were fighting about something they weren’t saying, but try as I might, I couldn’t find the real problem.

When I was old enough to ask, their answers hide more than they revealed. People can hide so much in what they say.

Characters have to do the same. Miscommunication, hidden agendas, lies, twisted truths, hurt feelings, anger, love, secrets–all are in the dialog. But sometimes I worry my dialog is too opaque. Confusing, not intriguing. Unrealistic, not compelling.

How can you be sure you’re keeping your characters interesting–and not making them into a collection of verbal ticks and unbelievable ideas?

10 thoughts on “No One Understands What You’re Saying

  1. Mastering the art of revealing and hiding through dialog is a tricky one, to me. I’ve worked hard to make my characters sound less wooden — less like non-native English speakers — than some writers, and I always get compliments on my dialog and descriptions. But I’m striving to learn how to reveal and hide with character dialog, and it’s not been an easy thing.

    It’s always nice to know someone else is pushing the same boulders I am. Thanks for sharing.

  2. You sure keep your characters interesting. I am dying to know more about your grandma, and your mother, and their relationship.

    I think it’s the intriguing details you do give, the ones that suggest things… a dancing girl gone to orange grove bookkeeper… entertaining spiders. How did one thing meet the next?

    And then the mystery of their relationship. If grandma didn’t complain about much… what could mom have done to make her so upset?

    And then that you, the character, does not know. It sets up a question. We start to imagine the answers, but without the story, it’s only imaginings.

    And I want to see a picture of grandma the dancer. pretty please.

    1. I wish, wish, wish I had a picture of my grandmother when she was a young dancer. Sigh. But I’ll see what I can do.

      For whatever reason, I always found my mother and my grandmother interesting. I could never really understand them and I tried so hard. I’m still trying.

  3. Aha– so now we know where the dancing thing comes from. 🙂

    I wish I knew the answer — ANY answer. I think there’s a lot of hope involved; when I’m actually in the story, my characters are among the most interesting people I know. (Heh.)

  4. Well, not being a writer, I can’t really offer any suggestions on dialogue. As a reader, I’ve read a lot of crap dialogue, and a lot of good stuff. It seems the good stuff is more like regular dialogue that you’d hear while eavesdropping in a restaurant or some place like that. Some dialogue just comes through as really wooden.

    I am fascinated by the real relationships you blog about though – your family sounds really interesting. 🙂

  5. Pushing boulders? Good analogy. Squashed fingers, toes, hearts absolutely. With characters I like hints, mysteries, that ‘aha’ moment if you’ve been paying attention. In fiction (unlike life) at least you know what your characters are really saying.

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