Posts Tagged ‘Rita Mae Brown’

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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