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Archive for October, 2010

Parallel Play: Growing Up with Undiagnosed Asperger'sParallel Play: Growing Up with Undiagnosed Asperger’s by Tim Page

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Having a son with Asperger’s who is fast approaching adulthood, I long to know how any Aspie makes it through all the throes of adolescence to become an independent, thriving member of the community, let alone one who is valued.

Tim Page, a gifted music critic currently writing for The Washington Post, fortunately decided to pen a memoir of his childhood and adolescence (with a brief epilogue recounting his major milestones in adulthood). This book was worth the read not only for further insights into how an Aspie might handle it all (other than his drug years)–for example, transcendental meditation worked wonders for him–but, also, for his recommendations in music, film, etc. He’s exactly my age and, as I read of the pop culture surrounding his youth, it took me back to those wonderful times, re-living favorite songs and artists.

An excellent book for those whose world has been touched by someone on the Autistic spectrum. It provides the one thing we need most–hope.

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Wolf Hall: A NovelWolf Hall: A Novel by Hilary Mantel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve had a soft spot for Sir Thomas More ever since I saw the excellent film, “A Man For All Seasons,” but this book turned my view upside down. Cromwell, the villain in the movie, is here very sympathetically fleshed out by Hilary Mantel, whereas More is depicted as cold and ruthless. I am left wondering which is the truer depiction. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. In any case, the book was well worth the read, though it took me long enough. It took me a few chapters, too, to get used to Mantel’s use of the anonymous-seeming “he” to keep me deep in Cromwell’s POV as he observes all the developments at the court of King Henry VIII with regard to Wolsey, the queen, Ann Boleyn, etc. By the end, I had to wonder: “How did the main character change over the course of the novel?” There seemed to be no arc. For that reason, alone, I almost decided to rate it with only three stars. But then I realized that the author had put me so deeply in Cromwell’s mind that I was seeing with his eyes and no one really sees the arc in his/her own development. I’m sure when he looked in the mirror at age 50, when he was at the height of his power, he still saw and felt like the bruised, beaten boy he was at nine. His father had marked him for life.

Warning: this book is a bit raw in places (sexual references and descriptions of medieval torture), so if either of those kinds of things get to you, you probably wouldn’t enjoy the book.

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Another function of dialogue in fiction is to help set the scene. This can involve actual description within the dialogue tags, or it can mean setting the tone or feeling of the scene through dialogue.
J.K. Rowling does the first well in “Harry Potter.” For example, in this scene from “The Prisoner of Azkaban,” in which Harry begins the dialogue:
“What’s happened?” he [Harry] asked Ron and Hermione, who were sitting in two of the best chairs by the fireside and completing some star charts for Astronomy.
“First Hogsmeade weekend,” said Ron, pointing at a notice that had appeared on the battered old bulletin board. “End of October. Halloween.”
“Excellent,” said Fred, who had followed Harry through the portrait hole.

Even if you’d never seen the movies, you could begin to imagine the Gryffindor Common Room through these few exchanges of dialogue, in which brief snatches of the setting have been given.
As for setting the tone of the scene, consider this example from Carol Lynch Williams’s “The Chosen One,” in which one of the elders of the polygamous community has just arrived:
“Two things,” he says before any of us says a word, holding up his fingers to prove it. “I’m here for two things.”

I think I’ve stopped breathing, but I listen.
“Number one. Sister Kyra. I would like to have you over to dinner. A date so we can get to know each other better. Tomorrow evening.”

He doesn’t even wait for me to answer. A date?
“And number two, where is the baby from last night?”

Father stands now, loosening his arm from around my shoulders. “Mariah?” Father says.
“Screaming like that,” Uncle Hyrum says. “And in front of the Prophet. It was too much, Richard. Too much.”

“She’s not even a year old,” Mother Sarah says.
Uncle Hyrum looks at my mother like he could slap her. “Don’t speak, Sister Sarah, unless I’ve spoken to you first.”

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The author, Elmore Leonard, once said,

“All the information you need can be given in dialogue.”

While that may be true, in too many instances doing so would make for a pretty lousy read. You have to be careful not to overdo it so as to make it sound stilted. Here’s a bad example (again provided by Rita Mae Brown):

“As you know, Bob, we’ve been stuck on this desert island for twenty years, eating only the coconuts that grow on the one tree and fish which we catch with our hands.  We have several vitamin deficiencies, and you’ve been picking your nose this whole time.  Stop it, or I’m going to kill you!”

Brown points out that a better tactic would be to dramatise the exposition and use only one line of dialogue, as follows:

“Ted pounded the coconut open with a rock. It wasn’t quite ripe yet, but he was so tired of fish, and his fingernails stung in the salt water where they cracked and peeled. Bob sat on the beach a few yards away. He was picking his nose again. Again. “Stop it!” Ted screamed and picked up the rock he had used to smash the green coconut into meaty fragments.

Do you see how the scene has now come to life for the reader?

Here’s an extended example of dialogue (from Hilary Mantel’s award-winning Wolf Hall), which is skillfully written to reveal a lot without sounding stilted. In this scene, written from Cromwell’s point of view, Alice More, the wife of Sir Thomas More, is visiting Cromwell on her husband’s behalf:

“Well! When I came here before it was a musty old place. My husband used to say,” and he notes the past tense, “my husband used to say, lock Cromwell in a deep dungeon in the morning, and when you come back that night he’ll be sitting on a plush cushion eating larks’ tongues, and all the jailers will owe him money.”

“Did he talk a lot about locking me in dungeons?”

“It was only talk.” She is uneasy. “I thought you might take me to see the king. I know he’s always courteous to women, and kind.”

He shakes his head. If he takes Alice to the king she will talk about when he used to come to Chelsea and walk in the gardens. She will upset him: agitate his mind, make him think about More, which at present he doesn’t.

“He is very busy with the French envoys. He means to keep a large court this season. You will have to trust my judgment.”

The lesson? Dialogue can indeed provide exposition for the story, but don’t overdo it.

I’d love to hear your examples of good dialogue that provides exposition.

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I got back from a wonderful writers retreat about a week ago, one at which I had to make a couple of presentations. Since one of them was about writing believable dialogue, I thought I’d repeat much of what I shared here on my blog…only in parts.

To begin with, most of what I’m about to write here was gleaned from two excellent writers–Gail Tsukiyama (Women of the Silk) and Karen Joy Fowler (Sister Noon, The Jane Austen Book Club)–at a writers retreat I attended in Maui some six years ago. At least the main principles are theirs. I scrambled around among the books I’ve read to provide several examples of those principles.

According to Gail, there are six functions of dialogue in fiction: characterization, exposition, setting the scene, advancing the action, foreshadowing/reminding, and suggesting personality (which kind of goes hand in hand with characterization).

In talking about characterization, I quoted author Rita Mae Brown (“Rubyfruit Jungle”) from her book on writing (“Starting From Scratch: A Different Kind of Writer’s Manual”):

“People are funny. No doubt you’ve noticed that others are not nearly as reasonable as yourself. Shocking, isn’t it? This difference between you and other people comes out in speech. Obviously, difference displays itself in the subject matter people speak about, but on a deeper, more subtle level, it displays itself in the way in which they frame those very ideas.”

She went on to then give an example of quick, efficient dialogue that characterizes. She set up the scene by asking the reader to imagine two teenage boys running around, creating havoc and the response of an 80-year-old widowed great-aunt: “Please desist from your tawdry ravings.”

What do those six words tell you about the woman? You learn, or can infer, that she commands the English language, understands precision and authority, and she’s well educated, possibly even upper class. If she’d just said, “Shut up” or “Be quiet” you wouldn’t have learned nearly enough.

I’d love to hear any examples of great characterization in dialogue that you’ve come across.

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