“Even If It Rains . . .” Dialogue and ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”


Some writers adore writing dialogue. Characters leap off the page, verbal weapons in hand. Some writers are naturals at it – each character has a completely different voice, inflection, accent, use of words. For others . . . well, given the choice between writing dialogue and spending a night on Alcatraz, they’d be packing the sleeping bag.

But no matter what, if you’re a writer, you can’t avoid dialogue.

When you’re writing a story – be it fiction or nonfiction, a short story or a novel – there are building blocks you have to include, or else it will all fall apart. Things that not only provide your story with structure, but breathe life into it, make it come alive. Possibly the most important of these is dialogue.

Plot? Sure, we need it. But let’s face it:  unless you’re James Patterson, you’re hopefully writing fiction that’s more character driven than plot driven. And dialogue is one of the most important ways our characters leap off the page. It tells us, more than description, more than backstory, more than interaction with others, who these people are. Where are they from? Do they have an accent? Do they mispronounce certain words? If so, why? Do they use regionalisms? (Example:  a friend’s grandfather lives in Tennessee. He asks “You wanna Coca-Cola?” You say, “Sure!” He says, “What you want? We got Sprite, Pepsi, Dr. Pepper . . .”) And along with that, how’s their diction? Is their speech liberally peppered with idioms? Do they use African-American Vernacular English? Or is the prim, proper effect of boarding school evident in every sentence?

In short:  dialogue should tell us nearly everything we need to know about your character.

But. It can also provide so much more! Through dialogue, we should be able to see how they interact with each other. Do your characters have nicknames for each other? Do they reference jokes and incidents from their past that even you, the author, don’t quite get? When do we sense antagonism? And for whom do they feel it?

Dialogue can provide a sense of the characters lives prior to this point in time. It can tell us about their relationships. It can tell us how others see them.

mmmOne of my new obsessions is the Amazon series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Haven’t seen it? You must. If you drool over 1950s fashion (me!), you must see it. If you love comedies (me!), you must see it. If you like to be flabbergasted by how women were treated in the 1950s (me, apparently!), you must see it. And if you don’t know how women were treated in the 1950s, this show shall be your education!

In Season 1, Midge Maisel is left by her husband, for a woman with no discernible brain cells. So Midge decides to become a comedienne. She’s very good at it. But it’s 1958. She’s 26 years old. She has two children, overprotective parents, and no income. I’m seven episodes into the first season, and bang my head against something (sometimes the table, sometimes the cats . . .) every time Midge’s parents, especially her mother, makes remarks about how she ‘has’ to get her husband back, and her father gives her a curfew. At twenty-six! (This clip here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uetOWf7jU2Q)

The dialogue, though! There is a reason this show has won so many awards.

For starters, the two halves of Midge’s life – the proper Jewish housewife who shops at Neiman-Marcus, and the abandoned woman who gets drunk and does totally improv comedy laced with profanity (and, at times, nudity) – are delineated neatly, and nowhere more so than through the dialogue. Midge’s manager, Susie, is a streetwise alley cat (think an adult, jaded, f-word-dropping, Oliver Twist who never got adopted), while Midge’s father is a maths professor and her mother seems to only leave their Riverside apartment to go to her synagogue and her psychic.

For another thing, almost every line sparkles. It’s witty, it’s fast, it’s a current that carries you through every single scene, and every single episode. It’s what dialogue is supposed to do, and it does it in a way that is both hilarious and biting.

But even among this incredible deluge of dialogue, there are lines that rise above the rest. For me, the pinnacle of these lines was in Season 1, Episode 5. Midge, tired of living with her parents and having a curfew, has gotten a job at the makeup counter at a department store. The next morning, she announces this to her parents.

(For a short clip of this scene, start watching at :54 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=adG3j9n5fl8.)

For the next thirty seconds or so, her father bombards her with questions. But for me, the kicker, the one that made me both howl with laughter and scream in frustration, was this one:

“If it rains, you still have to go in.” 

This one line suddenly rises above all the hilarious one-liners her father throws at her – utterly ridiculous statements like, “And they’ll pay you? In money?” and “You’ll need a bank account” – to suddenly reveal multiple levels of what’s really going on here. 

1.) There’s obviously the overprotective dad thing going on, evidenced by Midge’s patient acceptance of the litany. But . . .

2.) Think about what this line says about Midge’s father. About how he sees Midge. What does it say about him? Does he really think she’d rather quit her job than get her Neiman-Marcus heels wet? Is this a patronizing line from a male chauvinist pig? Or is it something else?

3.) And think about what this line says about their relationship. He doesn’t even know she has a bank account. What does he know about his own daughter? And is anything he thinks he knows accurate? Can we extrapolate 26 years’ worth of relationship from this one line?

4.) And now let’s take it one step further. What does this line say about Midge? She’s 26. She married at 22, straight out of college. Never had a job. Never needed one. But even if you didn’t know any of that, what would this one line say about her, and her life up until this point? Does he ask this question because he’s insulting her – or because he truly thinks she would stay home rather than go out in the rain? And does he think this due to past experience?

5.) And when we put it in context of the entire conversation (go watch the very short clip, I beg of you, start at :54), is her dad happy she has the job? Does he think she can actually do it? Is he trying, in his own way, to be encouraging? Is he trying to undermine her confidence, or bolster it? Does this conversation potentially signal a turning point in their relationship?

Yeah. So this one line – again, out of thousands of fantastic ones in this series – was the one that made me hit the Pause button and listen to it over and over. It hit me so hard, made me think on so many levels. And that’s what dialogue should do. It should make us think. It should stay with us, haunt us, confront us days after we read or hear it. It should stay with us. 

It should say something more. 


Punctuation: your ‘little drum set’ for better dialogue

There are some things I’m just not good at – or may never be able to learn. Math. My new DSLR camera. Everyone has something like that.

But if you want to be published – or just taken seriously as a writer, or even as as a student – you need to know grammar, spelling, and punctuation.

I just read a snippet from Annie Dillard, which put in me in mind of this topic:

Learn punctuation; it is your little drum set, one of the few tools you have to signal the reader where the beats and emphases go. (If you get it wrong, any least thing, the editor will throw your manuscript out.) Punctuation is not like musical notation; it doesn’t indicate the length of pauses, but instead signifies logical relations. There are all sorts of people out there who know these things very well. You have to be among them even to begin.

I’ve never heard it put quite like this – but I love it. Because it’s true. I have little patience for people who can’t use grammar and punctuation properly, in large part because writing isn’t just about the words and sentences; it’s the punctuation that puts those words and sentences together into coherent units that convey the thought to the reader. Especially when it comes to dialogue.

Look at it this way:  you hear the voices of your characters in your head. You know their tone. You know their accents. The cadence and meter of how they speak. You may think you can’t get that across to your reader – but you can. At least, you can give it your best shot. Properly punctuated dialogue gives us those things.

Take these sentences:

“Pretty, isn’t she?”

“Yes, sir. I mean, I reckon so. Didn’t really notice. I . . .”

“Maisie’s my girl, kid. But you can have any of the others.”

In this small exchange, there’s two speakers – Nicky, my protagonist, and Bart, the bouncer at a local speakeasy. Can you hear the panic in Nicky’s voice in the second line? If so, I did good. If not, I didn’t. 🙂 Now here’s the scene with the tags attached:

Bart came over to Abby and nodded towards the closing cellar door. “Pretty, isn’t she?”

“Yes, sir. I mean, I reckon so. Didn’t really notice. I . . .”

He laughed. “Maisie’s my girl, kid. But you can have any of the others.”

I’m sure you’ve heard this a lot, but dialogue usually doesn’t need tags. If you’re doing the job right with the rest of the writing, then there’s no need for tags. Your characters’ actions should tell us how they’re speaking. Take this example from one of my urban fantasy manuscripts (Erin’s feisty, BTW!): 

When I got to the meeting room, it was buzzing; almost everyone had a copy of that damn paper, and they were all talking about it, showing off photos and pointing out things in the article. I stalked through them, up to the front of the room where Spencer was talking to someone, and slammed the paper on the table.

“Whitfield? That bloody bastard went to Whitfield Abby and got those poor monks to parade around for photographs? How? Why? Why, Spencer?” My voice rose with everyone word, until they echoed from the ceiling. Vaguely, I noticed the entire room had gone silent. I didn’t give a damn. Trembling with rage, I slammed my fist into the paper. “Explain!”

“Miss Carson, perhaps after the meeting . . .”

“No.” My jaw clenched. “Now.”

Here, I’ve kept it neat and clean – again, two speakers, Erin and Spencer – and I hope you can hear the panicked, frantic – and yes, ANGRY – note in her voice as you read this. 🙂 But what you will notice is that there isn’t one single tag anywhere. No ‘said.’ Nothing. Done right, you very rarely need them. Take a look at your own writing. If you’re typing “he said,” or “I said” after every bit of dialogue – what can you do to fix it? Think about these things:

Are you afraid your readers won’t be able to tell who’s speaking? In that case, you need to strengthen your characters’ voices and make them more distinct from each other. Also, make it clear in the dialogue who’s speaking. Here, we know Erin’s talking to Spencer, so it’s clear to the reader that it’s him in that second line.

Are you using tags other than said to convey how your character is speaking? If so, get the dialogue right – using punctuation. Take these two lines:

“Now,” I said. “I want to know what the hell your golden boy was thinking.”

He stared at me, a muscle working near his jaw. “Miss Carson, please. Sit.”

That ‘sit’ at the end is set aside as its own sentence for a reason. Read it aloud. It’s not part of that first sentence, is it? Never was meant to be. It’s an order.

But this brings up another important point:  use your actions between the dialogue! That more than anything tells us precisely what your characters are thinking. Or should, if done right. That fist slamming on the table in the example above replaces any need for tags such as screamed, yelled, exclaimed, or whatever other weak adjective I could have used. But this is strong. This gets the point across.

And the last thing I want to say here is this:  When Annie Dillard says Learn punctuation; it is your little drum set, one of the few tools you have to signal the reader where the beats and emphases go, what she really means is this:  READ YOUR WORK ALOUD. Especially the dialogue. You hear it in your head; did you get it on paper? Are your characters pausing and emphasizing where you think they should be? Better yet, have someone else read it aloud to you. Then, you’ll really hear it (though you have to be careful to get someone who actually knows how to read aloud; that’s an art in and of itself).

Dialogue is one of the most important things in your writing. Use punctuation to make it even better.