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Posts Tagged ‘Karen Joy Fowler’

I’ve been on a three-month sabbatical, of sorts, except I’m not a teacher, I didn’t get paid for it, and I didn’t travel anywhere. Perhaps I should re-phrase: I quit blogging for the last three months because I simply didn’t have time while trying to create a new website for LDStorymakers, an author’s guild to which I belong. (I’m the Director of Communications for the group and, hence, am over their online presence among other things.)

In any case, I haven’t forgotten that I promised to post the 14 tips Karen Joy Fowler (author of The Jane Austen Book Club and other novels) shared during a writer’s retreat I attended in Maui some six or seven years ago. Keeping in mind that she writes literary fiction, here they are:

  1. Don’t let the setting disappear during your dialogue. Remember, the dialogue is happening during a particular time and in particular place and the reader needs to be there with the characters as they talk. So you, as the writer, cannot afford to disengage from those surroundings.
  2. To keep the reader on track with who’s talking, (a) never use a verb other than “said” with dialogue, (b) never use an adverb to modify “said” (as she put it, “The adverb is a leech sucking the strength from a verb.”) (c) express movement by a person before or after talking, and (d) start a new paragraph every time another person begins to talk. She did say you can use an occasional “asked,” but it’s almost impossible to overuse “said.” Also, consider not using a tag at all. If you have a character do something and then a line of dialogue, the reader will connect the dots.
  3. If a line of dialogue is funny, let it stand on its own. Don’t try and prop it up with a smile or laughter written in.
  4. Don’t fatten the dialogue by adding pauses (like umm, er…, etc.). In place of a pause, break up the sentence naturally by putting “she said” or a character’s movement in the middle of it (and the movement should be something bigger than shrugging or smiling…she said there are far too many shrugs and smiles).
  5. Generally, avoid ellipses (…) in dialogue.
  6. In a conversation, frequently the first and last phrases can be cut. You don’t need all the niceties. Start and end where it’s really interesting.
  7. Remember that dialogue is usually much more about how people imagine they are than how they really are. It’s kind of a performance, so you, as the writer, can juxtapose how they really are with how they present themselves to others. Don’t be afraid to bring out the hypocritical side of your characters in your dialogue.
  8. In creating dialogue, always ask “What does this person want?” rather than “How does this person feel?” She said that, at heart, we are all pretty selfish creatures and we’re always angling for something when we speak.
  9. Remember there is almost always a power dynamic between any two people talking, with one having more power and the other having less. This means one character will talk more and the other less in any scene…and that dynamic will change from conversation to conversation depending on the scene. The one in power will not always be the same as the story progresses.
  10. In her opinion, dialogue is not good at all in advancing plot. It’s good for tone and building on the character. In fiction, you often show and sometimes tell, but good dialogue is almost always showing, and not telling. (My other instructor at the retreat, Gail Tsukiyama, disagreed with her on this point about dialogue not being good for advancing plot, but did concede that good dialogue should always show more than it tells.)
  11. Good dialogue keeps you, as the writer, invisible by not being patently helpful. It should feel natural…something they’d actually say, not what you need them to say.
  12. Use dialogue to help pull in things outside the arc of the story that are interesting or help set your story’s time or place. This can particularly be done by using conversations overheard by the main character.
  13. Good dialogue makes the work more real and less planned. You can do this through eavesdropping (For example, imagine having one of your characters overhear this piece of dialogue: “I don’t know what else I can tell you. She rolled down the window, he jumped out, and the gator got him!”  If the reader had been drifting along in the story by this point, that piece of dialogue, or something similar, would certainly wake him up as long as it came across as something credible the character would overhear) or by undermining a lying character’s credibility (remember that liars tend to say the same thing two or more times in an effort to get their story across). Misunderstandings make for great dialogue (when people hear a word incorrectly, for example, funny conversations result).
  14. Finally, remember that dialogue is the fun part and it doesn’t need to match what’s going on in the story. (This last approach applies more to literary fiction than genre fiction and is particularly reflective of Ms. Fowler’s style of writing.)
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As I said in an earlier post, literary fiction is a different beast altogether when it comes to dialogue. This is one of my favorite quotes regarding the use of dialogue in literary fiction:

“The use of dialogue in fiction seems to be one of the few things about which a fairly definite rule may be laid down. It should be reserved for the culminating moments, and regarded as the spray into which the great wave of narrative breaks in curving toward the watcher on the shore. This lifting and scattering of the wave, the coruscation of the spray, even the mere material sight of the page broken into short, uneven paragraphs, all help to reinforce the contrast between such climaxes and the smooth effaced gliding of the narrative intervals; and the contrast enhances that sense of the passage of time for the producing of which the writer has to depend on his intervening narration. Thus the sparing use of dialogue not only serves to emphasize the crises of a tale, but to give it as a whole a greater effect of continuous development.”

—Edith Wharton, The Writing of Fiction

The reason I bring it up again here is that I want to share a list of dialogue techniques taught by Karen Joy Fowler at that same Writer’s Retreat in Maui. You may know her as the author of “The Jane Austen Book Club,” but while that book had a more populist appeal, much of her fiction is quite literary.

While her aim with dialogue is more literary, most (if not all) of her techniques are as effective in genre fiction and some may reflect what we’ve already discussed here. I’ll begin that list tomorrow, so stay tuned…

 

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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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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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