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Gillian Webster on Creating Delicious Tension with Dialogue in Her Fiction

Gillian Webster lives in the beautiful Georgian New Town of Edinburgh. She fell in love with the United States when she first began traveling there as a teenager. America has inspired her writing ever since. She has a BA (Hons) in marketing, French, and Italian from the University of Strathclyde and has taken classes in creative writing at The University of Edinburgh. Her first novel, Donor #149, was a finalist in the Penguin Random House Daily Mail First Crime Novel Award. She is working on her second novel, a domestic thriller set on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. In addition to writing, Gillian is an avid photographer.

Her story “Timing” is published in Capsule Stories Summer 2020 Edition. In “Timing,” Leia goes for a walk on the beach at sunrise and runs into a complete stranger, Greg, a marine biologist. The two strike up a conversation on the sand and feel strangely in sync with each other. Despite their connection, Leia holds back as she thinks of her fiancé back at their hotel room.

Content warning: Mention of self-harm.

Capsule Stories: Where did the idea for this story come from?

Gillian Webster: I’ve always believed that there is no single predetermined path for any of us; life is like a game of Chutes and Ladders. The smallest decision—where to stop for coffee en route to work, for example—can have the most profound impact on our lives. I love the idea of missed connections, of the road not taken. When I was given the two-word prompt “bad timing” in a short story writing class, the serendipitous meeting of these two strangers, Greg and Leia, began to shimmer on the horizon. Their meeting felt like the perfect what-if. We see fate at play when we’re told that Leia “takes a diagonal path today, turning right instead of left.” And later on: “She has an option at this point—take the lone walk along the shore that she had intended, or sit down beside this stranger, who feels less like a stranger by the second, and talk. She sits.” Fate has a hand, but she’s choosing, too.

I wanted to set a story in my real-world happy place: the beautiful beach of Longboat Key in Florida. This picture-perfect setting with its powdered-sugar sand, turquoise water, and tinkling shell banks only adds to the poignancy of this fictional couple’s fleeting, ill-timed meeting. There’s little doubt in my mind that if Greg and Leia had met at a different point in Leia’s life then their parting might well have ended differently, perhaps with cell phone numbers exchanged and a plan to meet for a drink later, or maybe an invitation for a tour at Greg’s marine research lab. The beautiful setting and the terrible timing felt like an interesting juxtaposition.

Capsule Stories: The dialogue in this story feels true to how two people with a connection talk to each other—which is hard to accomplish! How do you approach writing dialogue in your stories?

Gillian Webster: I know some people hate writing dialogue, but I’ve always loved it. I think dialogue makes a story come alive. For me, the key to making the connection between characters is to make it seem as natural as possible: I like to embrace incomplete sentences, allow interruptions, never shy away from awkwardness, goofiness, random blurted confessions. I tried to allow their conversation to assume an intimate tone, particularly when the characters have just met, as in this story. I wanted at least one of the characters to abandon any sense of propriety, to ignore their filter and have the other character respond to that. For example, when Greg says,

“Sorry to get so heavy before. I shouldn’t be offering advice. I don’t even know you.” He pauses before adding, “Except I feel like I kind of do. Is that weird?”

Leia admits that she already feels the same way.

To create that fast connection between strangers, you want to generate a delicious tension between them. I want the reader to enjoy the push and pull of any flirtation, argument, or confession.

More generally, I read my work aloud to ensure that the dialogue has the rhythm I’m trying to achieve—whether the character is timid and hesitant, confident, or maybe a bit of a mansplainer. You can hear when dialogue jars or when a character speaks for too long, telling rather than showing. Have fun with it. For my money, dialogue is a better way to create character than description simply because the reader is already painting images in their mind, visuals that will be colored by their own life and experiences. Your dialogue will put the character’s voice inside their head in a way that’s hard to dispute.

To hear best how people speak to one another, listen to conversations wherever you go. If I hear a particularly fun or unusual exchange, I note it down on my phone. You never know when a unique turn of phrase will bring a character to life.

In this story, the key to a fast connection was for Greg and Leia to share views that might take a lot longer to come out if time had not been so short. For example, when Leia says she thought only women could multitask and Greg replies, “Maybe you’ve been hanging out with the wrong men.” They share this flirtatious, on-point exchange before they even introduce themselves.

Capsule Stories: Throughout “Timing,” there are hints about Leia’s fiancé, who is back at the house. We never really quite learn who he is or why Leia is unsure about their relationship. How did you decide which hints to drop about their relationship and what you wanted the reader to infer or imagine on their own?

Gillian Webster: How much information to include and how much to leave to the reader’s imagination is the secret sauce of storytelling, particularly in a short work like “Timing.” I try to keep in mind that I am my own first reader, and as such even I don’t want the answer to every question. As a writer, you could give me the sunniest, happiest occasion, and I will find a note of darkness there; that’s simply how my mind works.

I felt a loneliness in Leia from the beginning. She’s in this idyllic location with her fiancé, they’re on the cusp of getting married, and yet she’s walking the beach alone at sunrise while he sleeps. It’s possible she’s just an early bird, but there was a sense of sadness, of being trapped or being watched at points throughout the story that felt unsettling. Leia and her fiancé have recruited two strangers to be their witnesses, and her dress is a simple white sundress; this is not a big family wedding. It feels like something more shameful, perhaps rushed. We can feel a reluctance within her. Yet, when she meets Greg she seems to blossom. They are clearly kindred spirits in a way that she and her fiancé are not.

Leia’s fiancé hovers threateningly over this story, although we never see him. At the end of her exchange with Greg, she forces herself back to her life with an act of self-harm propelling her, as though to carry out her plan to marry the sleeping, unnamed stranger will be an act of self-harm itself. But I hope that I set the reader up with choices depending on the sensibility they bring to the story: they can choose to believe that Leia is simply nervous on the eve of her wedding; they may believe that she is trapped by convention or is being coerced. Either way, I hope they leave the story with questions and a lingering yearning to find out how Leia’s life turns out. The best short stories are those that stay with us. Nothing pleases me more than a howl of frustration from a friend or family member when a story ends and they say, “But I want to know what happens next. Could this be the start of your next novel?”

Capsule Stories: This story ties into our theme Going Forward in an interesting way: At the end of the story, Leia walks away from Greg, telling herself to keep moving forward—back to her house and her fiancé. For Leia, it seems it’s necessary to go back, to return, in order to go forward. How did you play with this paradox of forward motion in the story?

Gillian Webster: The paradox in this story is that Leia has to go back to go forward—most obviously, there is the physical walk along the beach and the return to her hotel room. But she faces the same journey from a mental perspective, too. When the pleasant detour of her conversation with this kind stranger is over, her real-life problems are waiting.

Whatever decision Leia makes at this point will have a high cost for her. There is a definite fork in the road ahead. Her meeting with Greg felt easy, teasing, joyful even—a time-out. But her fiancé hovered over that meeting like a dark cloud in an otherwise clear blue sky. It is to be hoped that her meeting with Greg will help her realize that there are other paths out there for her; she has options. But first she must go back, yes, before she can move forward, either to the future she had planned with a man she may well be afraid of or to a different future which will require her to find the courage to pack up her things, say her goodbyes before choosing a new road to travel.

We all face forks in the road, and I think that’s what makes this story universal. A bereavement, a job loss, a breakup, a pandemic—we never know when the universe might spin us like an empty bottle leaving our lives pointing in an entirely new direction. That’s what makes living both thrilling and terrifying all at once, and it’s what makes fiction writing fun.

Capsule Stories: What writing projects are you working on now?

Gillian Webster: My first novel, Donor #149, is out on submission, so I’m currently working on the second novel in the same New York-based crime series, which features a homicide detective called Nathan Heller and a female crisis negotiator working with the NYPD’s elite Jumper Squad.

During lockdown, I have also returned to a domestic thriller I’ve had running around my brain for a while. The novel is centered on an Upper West Side brownstone that is shared by two couples who are good friends until one of the couples decides to sell up and move away, leaving their friends at the mercy of the gut renovation from hell. Since we’ve all been confined to our homes, this felt like the perfect time to work on a property-centered thriller.

Outside of novel writing, I’ve had a few pieces published in The Writing Cooperative on Medium.

Capsule Stories: Are there any questions you wish we’d asked? Ask and answer it below!

Gillian Webster’s question: Timing is set on a barrier island beach on the Gulf of Mexico, your first novel is set in New York City and on the Fresh Kills estuary off Staten Island, and your current novel is based on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. We’re sensing a theme. You live in the city of Edinburgh, on the same street as the childhood home of Robert Louis Stevenson, a location that inspired him to write Treasure Island. How do you go about choosing the setting for your writing, and what is it about America that intrigues you?

Gillian Webster: I first visited the United States when I was sixteen years old, and ever since I’ve felt as if I was born in the wrong country. Something about the US speaks to me in a way that stories set in my own country do not. Maybe it’s the weather!

But that need to understand the “other” in great detail before you can write about it in an authentic, convincing manner makes me work harder to uncover the details than I might if I was writing about home, where you take so many things for granted. It’s almost like learning a new language; you steep yourself in that place and its culture, you watch how the people interact, and you listen to how they sound in order to pass yourself off as one of them. Your research goes deeper, whether that’s by walking the streets in person or reading the New York Times and the Washington Post every day as I do from the other side of the world. I stay in touch with the local issues via neighborhood blogs, crime reports, MTA updates. I can hear about restaurant openings and store closures at the same time as my New York friends. It’s amazing what you can learn about a place from a distance and how connected that can make you feel to the world you’ve created on the page. As a writing exercise, I highly recommend it.

You can find out more about Gillian Webster’s work on her website and read more of her work on Medium. You can follow her on Twitter and view her photography on Instagram.

Read Gillian Webster’s story “Timing” in Capsule Stories Summer 2020 Edition, available in paperback and ebook.

Gillian Webster