Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Small Island by Andrea Levy - a dialogue study

Small Island is an excellent example where dialogue makes the story come off the page and creates distinct relationships.  The novel is told from four different voices.  In 1948, Hortense Joseph arrives in London from Jamaica to meet her husband who has returned from the war.  If I remember correctly, they were only married six months before he left.  Hortense expects a much more elegant and honorable welcoming.  Her Jamaican husband, Gilbert, expects a much more obedient and passive wife.  Now we have a situation. 

The first and second chapters narrated by Hortense and Gilbert respectively are clever and funny with snappy answers, the Jamaican way.  The author uses her craft here.  This is not "real dialogue."  People just aren't that fast on their feet.  But it seems natural and believable in prose. 

I would recommend Small Island as a super read.  And for writers who are looking to polish their dialogue, it's a must.

Catherine Alexander

Friday, March 8, 2013

Dialogue: The Heart of Scene

Dialogue is often at the heart of scene.  Dialogue makes events in your story more vivid.  Relationships take on life through dialogue.  They become more real than they could ever be just through narrative.  This is because dialogue adds to the narrative’s force.  No longer are people being written about.  They are now coming to life, actually taking part in a drama.  When they come to life, so do the relationships between them.

 Dialogue is not small talk.  It must always depict change, reveal character, advance the plot and express theme. 

 Dialogue must appear realistic without being realistic.  It should:

 Not be natural, but suggest naturalness.

Be brief.

Add to the reader’s present knowledge.

Eliminate the routine exchange of ordinary conversation.

Convey a sense of spontaneity but eliminate the repetitiveness of real talk.

Reveal the speaker’s character, directly and indirectly.

Depict the relationships among the speakers.

Real talk is anything but orderly.  People don’t always answer each other’s questions directly.

He:  “You want a coke with your pizza?”  She:  “Why were you looking at her like that?”

                 He:  “You want diet or regular?  Why do you ask?”

 If this were written dialogue, the reader might be a little confused.

Effective written dialogue isn’t real.  If you transcribed a real conversation, you’d find it full of fillers and inconsequentials such as “um,” “I guess,” “I mean” and plenty of unfinished sentences, even dropping off words, such as  “Never mind, I  was just wonder…”  Written dialogue may employ some of these fillers, but be sparse!

Every piece of dialogue needs a reason to exist.  Each line should add to the reader’s knowledge of the situation, the people, events relationships or the feelings.  Dialogue that merely gives information is better turned into direct narration –NOT “Look over there in that window display of mannequins in silky beige bras and matching thongs.” BUT “Honey, don’t look,” she said, pointing at the store window mannequins in silky beige bras and matching thongs.”

Effective dialogue doesn’t need the help of “said” substitutes or adverbs stating how the lines are delivered.  Writing appears more professional when people simply say their lines, rather than breathe, croak, snarl, hiss, wheeze, chortle spit, gasp or sigh.  These are called tonal tags.  These often tell the reader what can be found in dialogue itself.  When you insert explanation in dialogue, you cheat the reader out of a chance to collaborate in the creation of the scene.  However, there is plenty of good writing that uses verbs and adverbs to create the speaker’s emotion.  Today, however, it’s considered an intrusion and unimaginative.

One of the most common reasons for flat dialogue is the formality of language.  This is conversation that sounds stilted. Try short sentences, interruptions, contractions.  Use verbal tics, accents and expressions.  Natural speech isn’t fluid.  It starts and stops.  It wanders.  Phrases are rethought halfway through and substituted with other phrases that are themselves rethought.

Consider how the following affirmative statements can be used to make dialogue natural at the same time as they can be used to differentiate between characters.  And all you’re doing is changing the idioms:

Yes.             Yep.    

Yeah.           Sure.


In my next blog, I'll given an example of one book where dialogue comes alive.

Catherine Alexander


Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Scene: Show, Don't Tell

Scene is showing!.

For fiction, standard advice runs, “Show, don’t tell.”  For memoir, telling is used more often.  After all, you are telling about your life.  Still, there should be a mixture of scene and summary.  Scene is showing, summary is telling.

 In fiction, stories allow us to love, condemn, condone, hope, dread and hate without any of the risks those feelings ordinarily involve.  Writers show the emotional impact of experience through or with characters. The attention is not so much on the words but through the words where the vitality of understanding lies.  It’s not enough to tell the reader that your character is in love – you must show it.  A scene must be an integral part of the story, an important detail that will surface later in narration or in developing character.  There are techniques for accomplishing this – for making scenes vivid, moving and resonant – which can be learned and can always be strengthened.

 By scenes and scenes alone do writers show not tell.  So what constitutes a scene? 

 Everything slows down or stops.  There is dialogue, or actions that display character, that change the course of the story in some way, advance the plot or change the way we feel about this character or that character.

Get to a good scene as quickly as possible in your writing.  How about this one:

 “Some killers are born.  Some killers are made.  And sometimes the origin of desire for homicide is lost in the tangle of roots that make an ugly childhood and a dangerous youth, so that no one may ever know if the urge was inbred or induced. 

“He lifts the body from the back of the Blazer like a roll of old carpet to be discarded.  The soles of his boots scuff against the blacktop of the parking area, then fall nearly silent on the dead grass and hard ground.  The night is balmy for November in Minneapolis.  A swirling wind tosses fallen leaves.  The bare branches of the trees rattle together like bags of bones.

“He knows he falls into the last category of killers.”    -- ASHES TO ASHES by Tami Hoag

 Or – or a character can be thinking, talking to himself or the reader such as:  This is the start of John Grisham’s THE TESTAMENT:

 “Down to the last day, even the last hour now, I’m an old man, lonely and unloved, sick and hurting and tired of living. I am ready for the hereafter; it has to be better than this.  (What a first sentence!)

 “I own the tall glass building in which I sit, and 97 percent of the company housed in it, below me, and the land around it half a mile in three directions, and the two thousand people who work here and the other twenty thousand who do not, and I own the pipeline under the land that brings gas to the building from my fields in Texas, and I own the utility lines that deliver electricity, and I lease the satellite unseen miles above by which I once barked commands to my empire flung far around the world.  My assets exceed eleven billion dollars.”

Catherine Alexander




Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Elements of Fiction: Scene and Summary

Elements of Fiction:  Scene and Summary

However structured the memoir or fiction, certain skills need to be employed in order to make the most of the story element. Two important aspects of moving through story are scene and summary. The object is to intersperse scene and summary.

 Scene:  close-up, using dialogue          Summary:  long-shot, telling or narrating

 Scene is a close-up camera zooming through a kitchen window.  Two characters are talking at a table. The camera goes up really close to each face while the audience hears each character speak.  In other words, it’s showing.

Many of the details of the kitchen are lost with this camera shot, maybe a blurry blue pitcher on a sideboard behind one of the speakers can just be discerned; perhaps there is a vague impression of yellow walls and an open door, but in this scene it is the speakers and what they say that matters.  Only selected details are in sharp focus.

In this short span of time, we slow down the narrative to something more like the actual time it takes for the scene to unravel in life.  Because the writer is going in close and because there is no need to crunch a lot of time into a small place, we can give the dialogue, note the expressions, reactions and movements of the speakers, as well as sounds, sights, smells, etc., in the immediate environment.  We can go inside a character’s head and give the reader thoughts that aren’t expressed in the dialogue.  We may describe the facial expression of one character.  We select details to render in close-up.
         Indoors the fire was sinking and the room was dark red.  The woman put her saucepan on the hob, and set a batter pudding near the mouth of the oven. Then she stood unmoving.  Directly, gratefully, came quick young steps to the door.  Someone hung on the latch a moment, then a little girl entered and began pulling off her outdoor things, dragging a mass of curls, just ripening from gold to brown, over her eyes with her hat.

         Her mother chid her for coming home late from school, and said she would have to keep her at home the dark winter days.

         “Why mother, it’s hardly a bit dark yet.  The lamps not lighted, and my father’s not home.”

         “No he isn’t.  But it’s a quarter to five!  Did you see anything of him?”

                                              --DH Lawrence, Odour of Chrysanthemums

To write good scenes, we need dialogue. Don’t be tempted to add spice by way of attributions.  These are the “he saids” and “she saids,” which are sometimes needed to make it clear who is saying what.  Since the usual practice is to use a new line each time you switch speakers, attributions are likely to be needed less often, use them only when the conversation would be unclear without them.  Don’t shore up the dialogue with descriptions such as “he snapped” or “she mused,” or phrases such as, “he said in an endearing tone.  In the best writing, that kind of information is revealed in the dialogue itself and the reader gets to know the speakers through their own words.  Move your story along with dialogue that adds to your depiction of the characters.

Summary is the long shot – the one that pulls back to a great distance, embracing first the whole house, then the street, then the neighborhood, and then, becoming an aerial shot, it takes in the whole city and maybe the surrounding mountains too.  The view can include a huge number of details, but all seen from a distance, none apparently more important than another. 

Translated into literary time, these two approaches represent difference paces.  We use the summary when we want to cover a lot of time in a few paragraphs; it gets us from the end of one scene to another scene a year later, and on the way there it fills in information that is important to the continuity of the story. It can accelerate the tempo of a narrative, hurrying us through events that might be uninteresting or distracting. In other words, it’s narration or telling.

Summary can also offer rich, sensory detail and is certainly not merely a way of moving time along between scenes.

          I started school in the middle of hurricane season, and the world grew suddenly bigger, a vast place of other adults and children whose lives were similar, but whose shadings I couldn’t really explore out of respect and dignidad.  Dignidad was something you conferred on other people, and they, in turn, gave back to you.  It meant you never swore at people, never showed anger in front of strangers, never stared, never stood too close to people you’d just met, never addressed people by the familiar tu until they gave you permission . . .  In school I loved the neat rows of desks lined up one after the other, the pockmarked tops shiny in spots where the surface hadn’t blistered, the thrill when I raised my desktop to find a large box underneath in which I kept my primer, sheets of paper, and the pencil stubs I guarded as if they were the finest writing instruments . . .
                                                                                                                                                                       --Esmeralda Santiago, When I was Puerto Rican

 Because this is summary rather than scene, the verbs refer to an ongoing set of actions that took place over time.  Although this summary gives many interesting details it never moves into a scene, which would require the writer to fix on one particular day within that period.
The best story is interspersed with scene and summary, making it an engaging and interesting read.

Progress On My Second Novel

The main problem in my second novel is drawing out the female protagonist. She is 21, admitted to a psych ward of a hospital after a suicide...