Stephanie Noll studied fiction writing at Texas State University, where she earned her MFA. Last fall, she published a young adult novel titled Breach, a book that she co-authored with four other writers. She is a frequent storyteller at The Story Department, a monthly fundraiser for the non-profit Austin Bat Cave. Stephanie has 17 years of teaching experience and has worked as a senior lecturer in the English department at Texas State for the past 8 years. She also has led a memoir-writing workshop for female inmates at the Travis County Jail and has written a novel about a standardized test cheating scandal at an inner-city Houston high school.
On Saturday, February 6, Stephanie will be teaching a class for the Writers’ League at St. Edward’s University called “Making Your Story Seem Real: Crafting Believable Characters and Engaging Dialogue“. Read the interview below and visit the class page to learn more.
Scribe: Do you think having others read your story is crucial to testing its believability? Or will this class teach the skills that help people identify what is believable and what’s not on their own?
Stephanie Noll: I think it’s really important to have at least one good reader for your work, and a good reader should be able to let you know when you’ve interrupted the dream, as they say. But I do think there are ways to evaluate our own work and determine whether or not we are being true to the story, the place, the characters we’ve created, and we’ll talk about how to do that in this class.
Scribe: I like that you make the distinction between making a story seem “real” and making it “realistic.” Could you expand on that a little more?
SN: Whether you are writing fiction that is set in Austin in 2016 or fiction set on the planet Pizo, you want your work to feel plausible for the story and the place and your characters. Fiction isn’t “real life,” and I think we can sometimes get bogged down by trying to portray events or circumstances as realistic and accurate to true life. We look to books to escape, but our job as writers is to create a world that feels real from cover to cover.
Scribe: You also write that “Dialogue is so much more than a conversation.” Can you explain or provide a brief example of how you can create subtext in dialogue specifically?
SN: Dialogue should move the plot along and/or tell us something about the characters. I think about the last lines of Raymond Carver’s story, “Cathedral.” It’s a story about the narrator’s wife inviting a friend of hers over to spend the night. The friend is a blind man whose wife has just died. But the story is really about love and marriage and faith and death and the small moments that, if we are paying attention, will illuminate big truths.
The story ends with the blind man and the narrator working together to draw a cathedral on a sheet of paper. The blind man instructs the narrator to keep his eyes closed until the end:
“Well?” he said. “Are you looking?”
My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn’t feel like I was inside anything.
“It’s really something,” I said.
For me, this passage shows what dialogue can do, how it can tell us so much more about what the story “is” and not just what the characters say.
Scribe: What do you think is lost in a story if there is not enough dialogue?
SN: I think you risk keeping your reader too far outside the story. Beautiful descriptions about the history of a town and its people are lovely, but we want to hear what those people have to say about the new family that’s moved to town as much if not more than who built the new courthouse after the old one burned down.
Scribe: In moments of doubt over the believability, what is one tactic you personally often use to weed out the unbelievability of what you just wrote?
SN: This might sound counterintuitive, but I look to see if what I’ve written rings too true. A lot of what I write is based on my observations of things that have happened, but telling that true doesn’t make good story.
— Thanks, Stephanie!
Click here to register for Stephanie’s class.