Archive for November, 2010

While this is closely aligned with characterization, it really does something a bit more. Good dialogue can make a character pop off the page and that’s exactly what we want to have happen as writers. But it’s not easy to do. Again, I’ll quote one of my favorite novelists:

“Dialogue is my favorite thing to write. It can be an elegant way to package some of a novel’s most crucial information. But you do have to work hard to keep it vernacular and well paced. I construct the fictional conversations in my head and listen carefully. It might seem easier to put words in the mouths of my own invented characters than the historical figures who also appear in the story—Frida and Diego, for example. But really there was little difference. By the time I’d read their personal diaries and everything else, their voices were coming through loud and clear. Sometimes their words came straight from the record. The conversations with my protagonist, Harrison Shepherd, are all invented, of course, but it was engaging to fit everything together. When I went into the studio to record the audio book, I realized I was hearing these characters plainly in my mind, so I did my best to replicate those accents and intonations. This meant acting out conversations between characters who were Mexican, Russian, French, Mexican American, Ashevillean, and so forth, in various combinations. If I thought too much about it, my brain might blow a fuse. So I just channeled the voices as I heard them.”

Barbara Kingsolver, The Lacuna

And here’s an example from that same novel:

“Señora, sorry to disturb. Olunda sent me to get your plates from lunch.”

“No wonder she won’t come fetch the dishes herself, she’s ashamed of that jocoque.” She glanced up. “Olunda la Rotunda. Do they still call her that?”

“Not if they’re still alive, señora.”

“How does she get so fat on her own cooking? Look at me, I’m vanishing.”

“Fried bread with syrup is her secret.”

She made a little puzzled scowl. “And you, skinny creature. What’s your name?”

“It didn’t please you much the first time. When you wrote it in the ledger.”

“Oh, that’s right, you’re that one. The unpronounceable.” She seemed to wake up, sitting up straighter. When she looks at you her eyes are like lit coals inside the hearth of those shocking eyebrows. “What does Diego call you?”

“Muchacho, mix some more plaster! Muchacho, bring me my lunch!”

She laughed. It was a good impersonation.

You definitely get a strong idea of the personalities of both the young protagonist, Harrison (who cooks and does odd jobs for the famous artists, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo) and the fiery Frida.

Next week, I’ll post something about dialogue in literary fiction, plus a list of techniques given by Karen Joy Fowler, the author of The Jane Austen Book Club. She definitely falls into the literary fiction camp, but many of her techniques apply to dialogue in genre fiction, as well.

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Readers, particularly those who read a lot, love to be able to pick up on clues early in the story that might point to where the plot or a certain character is headed. They also don’t always have perfect memories and may well have forgotten an important point made earlier in the story. That’s why it’s important to use dialogue, at times, to either foreshadow coming events or remind the reader of something important that was established earlier.

Here’s an excellent example, in my opinion, of foreshadowing in a bit of dialogue from Leah in Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible:

“It’s a heavenly paradise in the Congo, and sometimes I want to live here forever.”

Those of you who have read the story will know exactly what I’m talking about and the rest of you can no doubt make an educated guess. (By the way, if you haven’t read this, you really ought to.)

I found another terrific example of foreshadowing early on in the book Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott:

“You did well to find Elizabeth. Find Elizabeth, find the seventeenth century, we always say. She has a gift.”

“You talk about her as if she’s still here.” I put my hand to the back of my neck suddenly. Something—the wind, a twig, a wind-blown leaf—had touched me there.

“Oh, but she is still here. I haven’t seen her yet, but she’s here all right. There are others here too. Don’t you feel them?”

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This is more useful in genre fiction, particularly thrillers, but nearly all dialogue needs to move the story along in some way.
An obvious example from “The Hunger Games,” when Peeta discovers Katniss still hanging around after the cracker jacker attack:
“What are you still doing here?” he hisses at me. I stare uncomprehendingly as a trickle of water drips off a sting under his ear. His whole body starts sparkling as if he’s been dipped in dew.
“Are you mad?” He’s prodding me with the shaft of the spear now. “Get up! Get up!”
I rise, but he’s still pushing at me. What? What is going on?
He shoves me away from him hard. “Run!” he screams. “Run!”
(I might point out that a lot of tension is created through the use of few words here. You don’t always need a lot of dialogue to advance action, but generally you’ll see more of it in genre fiction.)

However, literary fiction is a different beast. In literary fiction, dialogue is sparse and sometimes doesn’t even need to match what’s going on in the story. But I’ll have more to say about that later.
In tomorrow’s posting, I’ll briefly tackle foreshadowing or reminding through dialogue.

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For any of you who may be interested:

Segullah: Writings by Latter-day Saint Women is pleased to announce its annual writing competitions in the genres of personal essay, poetry, and fiction. Segullah welcomes unpublished entries which address any subject in harmony with its mission: to publish insightful writings which explore life’s richness and complexity while reflecting faithfulness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Entrants must be female members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Entries will be judged by Segullah editors. Winners in each category will be awarded $100. Deadline is December 31, 2010. For more information, visit http://journal.segullah.org/contests/.

Segullah also puts on a terrific one-day conference every spring, for your information. I attended last year and found it well worth my while. The presentation on essays was unforgettable.

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