dialog layering

So here’s a short scene in dialog. It doesn’t work, but it could. It needs layering. You could put in dialog tags, observations about facial expressions from the opposite POV, body language, anything that brings it to life. There’s no rhythm here because it’s all presented in one big clump, which is something else that needs to be addressed.

Of course you also have to decide for yourself what’s really going on here, if these people are being playful with each other or if there’s some underlying feud. I haven’t even given you names, because that makes a big difference in how you might proceed. This could be a couple, or an elderly father and a son, or two sisters watching their mother, or old friends observing one of their aunts. The crucial thing to remember is that if this scene is to stay in the story, it has to actually (1) move the characterizations along or (2) contribute something important to the tension and plotting.

If this exercise really takes your fancy and you want to post it on the discussion board, please feel free to do so. Maybe you’ll get a conversation going.

“She wanders around the garden like an old witch.”
“A good bitch or a bad bitch?”
“I wish you’d do something. That’s not what I had in mind.”
“So bossy so early in the morning. I wonder why I never noticed that before–”
“Before what?”
“Oh look, she’s digging a hole. I wonder what that’s for. Treasure to bury?”
“You’re not taking this seriously. I wish you’d do something, I really do.”
“Hand me the telephone, I’ll alert the media.”
“You know there’s a word for this behavior, don’t you? It’s not a very nice word, either.”
“I do so love word games. Let me guess.”

yesterday

…I wrote pretty well, for the first time in a week. I had been sidestepping a particular POV because it scares me, and so things stalled. The subconscious is a ruthless, pitiless terrorist organization. Mine certainly tortures me into going places I’d rather not be. So I spent yesterday in the head of a male character I have avoided until this point. And yes, it’s moving along now. And yes, I’m grumpy about it.

omniscient point of view

POV is one of those things that beginning students of creative writing find hard to understand. The simplest way to determine POV (the one that I use when I’m confused in my own writing) is this: who’s got the camera? We’re seeing and experiencing this scene through somebody’s eyes — who is it?

For a long time it’s been fashionable to write in limited third person POV, which means simply that only one character at a time is holding the camera. You’re inside Joe’s head, watching a car accelerate toward a brick wall; then you’re in Jane’s. The contrast between how two characters experience the same event is one of the ways to use contrast to build tension. Mostly my work is in limited third person POV. Here’s Albany in 1794 seen through Elizabeth’s eyes:

The roads were crowded with housemaids swinging baskets on red-chapped arms; peddlers hawking sticky peaches, sugar-sweet melons, wilted kale; young women in watered silks with feathered parasols tilted against the sun; River Indians dressed in fringed buckskin and top hats; slaves hauling bales of rags and herding goats. It was not so dirty and crowded as New York had been, that was true. There was a pleasing tidiness to the brick houses with their steeply tiled roofs and bright curtains, but still the humid air reeked of sewage, burning refuse, pig slurry and horse dung. Elizabeth swallowed hard and put her handkerchief to her nose and mouth, wondering to herself that she had forgotten what cities were like in such a short time. Three months in the wilderness had changed her, stolen her patience for the realities of a crowded life.

And now from Nathaniel’s POV

Because they did not have any other molds, Run-from-Bears had melted down about twenty pounds of the Tory gold in a makeshift forge and cast a fortune in bullets. These Nathaniel had been carrying in double-sewn leather pouches next to his skin since they left Paradise, ten pounds on each side. In Johnstown this unusual currency would have caused a stir, but Albany was a town built on some two hundred years of high intrigue and trading shenanigans. Comfortable Dutch and British merchants had made large fortunes running illegal furs from Canada, reselling silver spoons stolen in Indian raids on New England families much like their own, and bartering second grade wampum and watered rum for all the ginseng root the native women could dig up, which they then traded to the Orient at an outrageous profit. A sack of golden bullets would raise nothing more in an Albany merchant than his blood pressure.

It used to be that authors wrote almost exclusively in first person POV (David Copperfield, for example) or in omniscient third. Jane Austen is a good example of the latter case: the author sees all, knows all, and tells all. She sees simultaneously into the heart and mind of of Jane, Darcy, and Miss Bingley and understands each of them perfectly. She is, in other words, their god. Along with what they are thinking and doing, Austen gives us a running editorial (and a sharp-edged one) on the greater society in which this is all happening.

I have wondered if I’m even capable of writing a whole story or book in omniscient POV, and I think the answer is that it would be a great deal of hard work. Like learning to write with my left hand, almost. There are a few writers now who are moving back toward omniscient POV; take a look at Ann Patchett’s most recent novel, Bel Canto (which won the Orange Prize and a lot of other critical awards last year), or the novels of Patrick O’Brien or Gabriel García Márquez.

 

An 1833 engraving of a scene from Chapter 59 o...

Here’s a lovely passage from Pride and Prejudice, which serves as an example of Austen’s perfect pitch in matters of dialog. It’s also in omniscient POV:

 

“How very ill Eliza Bennet looks this morning, Mr. Darcy,” she cried; “I never in my life saw any one so much altered as she is since the winter. She is grown so brown and coarse! Louisa and I were agreeing that we should not have known her again.”

However little Mr. Darcy might have liked such an address, he contented himself with coolly replying that he perceived no other alteration than her being rather tanned — no miraculous consequence of travelling in the summer.

“For my own part,” she rejoined, “I must confess that I never could see any beauty in her. Her face is too thin; her complexion has no brilliancy; and her features are not at all handsome. Her nose wants character; there is nothing marked in its lines. Her teeth are tolerable, but not out of the common way; and as for her eyes, which have sometimes been called so fine, I never could perceive any thing extraordinary in them. They have a sharp, shrewish look, which I do not like at all; and in her air altogether, there is a self-sufficiency without fashion which is intolerable.”

Persuaded as Miss Bingley was that Darcy admired Elizabeth, this was not the best method of recommending herself; but angry people are not always wise; and in seeing him at last look somewhat nettled, she had all the success she expected. He was resolutely silent however; and, from a determination of making him speak she continued,

“I remember, when we first knew her in Hertfordshire, how amazed we all were to find that she was a reputed beauty; and I particularly recollect your saying one night, after they had been dining at Netherfield, ‘She a beauty! — I should as soon call her mother a wit.’ But afterwards she seemed to improve on you, and I believe you thought her rather pretty at one time.”

“Yes,” replied Darcy, who could contain himself no longer, “but that was only when I first knew her, for it is many months since I have considered her as one of the handsomest women of my acquaintance.”

He then went away, and Miss Bingley was left to all the satisfaction of having forced him to say what gave no one any pain but herself.

The editorial comments (highlighted) come from the omniscient narrator — Austen herself. The tone is indeed a little bit sharp, but Austen was sharp and in this particular instance, she gives her readers what they want (because, of course she has made them want it) — the officious, pretentious, cruel Miss Bingley finally talks herself into a scolding, and a particularly painful one at that.

The other thing to point out here is the masterful balance between direct and indirect dialog; some of what Darcy says is summarized, because it’s Miss Bingley we need to hear just then, without distraction. When he speaks up finally, he is given the floor with devastating effectiveness.

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more on first person narratives

some interesting suggested reading came up (thanks, Sillybean) in the comments to yesterday’s post, and I began to think more about first person narrative. So I went and looked on my bookshelves and found a few first person novels that are (in my estimation) well written and good enough to re-read (which is my ultimate test).

Here they are: To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee),
Sophie’s Choice (William Styron),
Ethan Frome (Edith Wharton),
Animal Dreams (Barbara Kingsolver), Rebecca (Daphne du Maurier).

John Mullen wrote a thoughtful essay on first person narration for the Guardian as part of a larger analysis of Donna Tartt’s Secret History. That novel didn’t make it onto my list, because I have no urge to ever re-read it.

“The choice of a first-person narrator must have seemed natural for a novel whose central character helps commit a murder. From Moll Flanders to Lolita, the first-person narrative, where the voice of the novel belongs to one of its leading characters, has been the means of drawing a reader into disturbing sympathy with that character’s misdeeds. Confession has long been a form in which fiction is cast.”

This is interesting, but it doesn’t quite work for me. The classicly extreme unreliable narrator (which really is what Mullen is talking about here) has never held much attraction for me, though I admire the skill that can pull something like this off. It’s just that I don’t come across it very often.