My writing group met last night and we had a good time. We talked for a while about what makes a book’s middle either sag or not. We generally agreed that to avoid a sagging middle one should: 1) introduce questions that can keep the reader going even if the pace slows down, 2) take the book in a new direction, such as introducing a second plot, 3) create surprises, which in general helps keep out the sag.
Later we got on the topic of humor, in life and in writing. I told them that I have no sense of humor, which is not completely true but which isn’t far from wrong if you should expect me to laugh at the kinds of things most people laugh at. We decided that humor was extremely idiosyncratic, and that it depended for best effect on surprise. This led us back to books. Surprise is essential in all writing. A book or story that is too predictable loses us just as a joke that is predictable falls flat.
Another thing we talked about was social skills. I mentioned that, in addition to lacking a sense of humor, I had no skill at picking up the subtle nuances of interpersonal relationships. Several group members mentioned some of the unspoken subtext that you see when groups of women or groups of men get together, and a lot of it surprised me because I just hadn’t realized such things were happening. At least one other member of the group admitted to not noticing such things as well, so I didn’t feel completely inept. But this also brought us back to writing. Does an author with weak social skills, as is the case with at least some of us, potentially lose readers by not—say—understanding the subtext in dialogue very well? I pointed out that maybe it wasn’t so bad because dialogue in writing is not natural dialogue. It has to sound natural, but it is certainly a heightened level of discourse. Dialogue in writing is “reasoned” out by the writer rather than simply being “released” by a speaker.
Finally, it occurred to me that these kinds of issues may explain one of my personal experiences in reading. Stephen King is often complimented on his extremely realistic dialogue. Readers say that his characters talk like real people. I’ve always found King’s dialogue to be rather mundane, and often a bit boring, but, then, I also find most casual conversation boring and mundane. It seems highly likely from last night’s conversation that the “fault” is in me. I find casual conversation mundane because, quite possibly, I’m not picking up on all the “behind the scenes” stuff. I bet King has good social skills, which are reflected in his skillful use of dialogue. I bet that’s why learning to create believable dialogue has been one of my greatest challenges in writing.