The Harrow Was Not Writing Blog

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Recently, I’ve been reading screenplays, because I’m writing one. As a learning activity for anyone who struggles with plot, visual writing or dialogue, reading and writing screenplays can be valuable. Screenplays offer fairly transferable skills, although they won’t offer any insight into introspection, complex sentence structure, or use of a wide buffet of senses (since you’re limited to sight and sound). 

Today I’m taking a look at dialogue in the movie Gattaca. 

THE CHALLENGE: 
Dialogue with conflict that feels believable, tense and “not dumb” can be hard for me. I avoid dialogue–I’ve written entire novels that have no more than a few dozen lines of dialogue. So I’ve been trying to round out my skills by focusing on this personal weakness. 

So I turned to screenplays, as a way to really focus in on dialogue. 

THE STORY: 
Not everyone agrees with me on this, but I love this movie. Slow to start, spending the first third in flashbacks, but with a tight emotional core and thematic resonance. And a surprisingly tense, suspenseful feel even during scenes of people sitting around talking to each other.

Be warned though: Jude Law absolutely outclasses every other actor in this movie. It’s embarrassing, really. 

What you need to know before you read the following excerpts is that the protagonist, referred to as Vincent in this portion of the screenplay, was born of a natural birth in a world of designer babies. He dreams of being an astronaut but Gattaca Aerospace only accepts the best of the best. In this scene he is looking for an elite designer-born person whose identity he can use to infiltrate Gattaca Aerospace. This is a very detailed process in a world that uses your blood, skin cells, hair, and saliva to verify your identity at every turn. 

Find screenshots of the screenplay below: 

   

THE SOLUTION: 
Perhaps, in reading that excerpt, you tell me: liar! Those had very little suspense at all! 

And you’re right. But you’ve probably not seen the movie, or you don’t remember it. Most screenplays don’t end up matching the movie itself–there are so many other people in the process making changes. This screenplay turned up surprisingly close to the movie, but there are small differences that improve the story immensely. 

One of those is that in many of the early scenes, where Vincent says things like “Even with lifts I’m never that tall” and German says “There’s a way,” the director has switched the dialogue around, often without even changing the phrasing. So instead, the movie has Vincent offering to wear lifts and German saying “Even with lifts, your not that tall.” 

This is important for a bunch of reasons. For one, the script tells us that Vincent has all this drive, but at every moment of struggle, he offers to give up. It’s totally inconsistent with his character. Secondly, on a thematic level, the screenplay puts the doubt in Vincent’s mind, as if it’s not the world getting in his way, just himself–that really doesn’t jive with the theme expressed in the premise (A world where oppression exists along genetic lines). 

Third, and probably most importantly on a scene-by-scene, technical level, the original conversation in the dialogue makes it so that Vincent’s allies are always propping him up, supporting him. It made it seem like the world is friendly, welcoming to Vincent’s rise above his genetic circumstances, and it makes the scenes themselves super boring. 

In the screenplay, when Vincent says “I’ll never be that tall” it’s a concession, a white flag, even a subtle hint that the show won’t go on. 

In the movie, when it’s one of his allies who says “He’ll never be that tall” it’s a challenge for the protagonist to overcome. It’s a barrier, and it shows how pervasive the “anti-godborn” sentiment is in this world–even his friends doubt him. Because it’s just science. He’ll never overcome, and everyone knows it. 

FINALLY
This simple shift speaker of the line lends credence to the argument that dialogue should be a contest of wills, that every relationship should be adversarial. And it points to at least one potential form that adversarial relationships can take: doubt.

Eugene and German both want Vincent to succeed for their own reasons, but they can’t help but doubt that he can achieve it, and they can’t help but vocalize that doubt. All throughout the screenplay they’re telling him how what he wants isn’t just hard, it’s impossible. It’s the same message Vincent’s antagonists are giving him, the same one the world is giving him, and it’s that consistency that gives the dialogue substance, clarity, and suspense. 

We spend the entire movie thinking: maybe German is right when he says “even with lifts,” Vincent will never overcome his genes. 

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Usually, I’m remiss to talk about theme. I worry that the discussion will start to dig into weird minutia and near-conspiratorial interpretations of “symbols” that can often come with amateur “literary criticism”–and, to be honest, even during my literature classes, whenever possible I’d swing from the “why” of literary criticism into the “how” that I try to cover on this blog, academically referred to as “craft criticism.” Now, it’s totally possible to have a craft discussion about theme, and that’s what I’m going to try to cover here, continuing on with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which I reread for this study. 

 THE CHALLENGE:
There’s a lot of bad advice out there about theme. There’s this common piece of advice given at least in literary circles, that when a novel explores a topic, the writer shouldn’t seek to answer questions, but just to ask and explore certain questions. From my reading experiences, no piece of advice could be less realistic.

This common misconception connects in a lot of ways to the idea that themes should come across subtly in fiction. But no valuable thematically powerful book that I’ve ever encountered has been subtle. Consider some science-fictional examples: Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, Le’guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, Miller’s A Canticle for Lebowitz, Pohl’s The Space Merchants, Butler’s Kindred or more recently LaValle’s Ballad of Black Tom, and Okorafor’s Binti. All of these texts are excellent explorations of their themes. They vary in levels of nuance and complexity (with Pohl coming in at the bottom of the list in both) but none of them are subtle. It’s fairly obvious what “side” each comes down on in the debates on their topics. This is also true with Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale

So the goal here is to do some work to demystify how theme works, at least in science fiction, and get a better sense of how to convey themes to the reader. 

THE STORY:
Not to tread the same ground here too much, I’ll at least mention that I highly recommend this novel to anyone interested in lyrical, sensible prose. It’s a really precise novel (sometimes too precise for my taste) and can, at key moments, really pack a major punch. 

You’ll need a basic sense of the premise at least to understand what’s going on here. On the off chance that any of you don’t have a sense of it already, here it is: The world is transitioning from the one that you and I know, to one that is dominated by an extreme, authoritarian version of Christianity due to a crisis caused by plummeting birth rates. Now women are separated into groups based on traditional female roles–the “Marthas” do cooking, cleaning, and general service work, the wives are older high-society women who are married to the higher-class men in the society, and final the “Handmaids” are women with “viable wombs” who are more or less treated like baby factories. The “Aunts” are older women who train the Handmaids, and they are the only women allowed to read. All the women wear highly constricting clothing meant to hide them from the gaze of men. The main character, whose new name is Offred, is a little over thirty years old, and before the crisis she was a comfortable middle class woman who was married and had a child. Now she’s a Handmaiden. 

THE SOLUTION:
How does Atwood manage to convey theme without getting bogged down in lecturing? In short: using comparisons. Lots and lots of comparisons. Every female character acts as a foil to Offred, showing different systems of beliefs and different paths that women take in this world.

These comparisons can be roughly divided into two different buckets. One compares characters, and the other compares time periods in the arc of society. Atwood really only uses two methods to deliver these comparisons–either they are delivered through introspection in dialogue (in a detailed, evocative way) or they are delivered by placing two similar scenes close together. 

For this post, we’ll just discuss the character foils, since they’re the majority of the novel and allow some excellent opportunities to show Atwood’s techniques.  

Offred’s mother, Ofglen, and Moira are presented as radical, liberatory feminists who constantly rebel in their own way–more active and stronger than Offred. Sarena Joy, who was part of the leadership that instated this regime, shows a greater level of authority and power, while also navigating the limits of her position. Meanwhile Cora, Rita, and Janine are women who’ve fully accepted their role and perform it, if not with passion, then at least dutifully. Finally, we have perhaps the most important foil, “Aunt” Lydia, the voice of the regime, who honestly believes the world of Gilead is a better one. 

In the following passage, we can see the comparison between Aunt Lydia and Offred being set up: 

I remember the rules [of U.S. society in the 80’s], rules that were never spelled out but that every women knew: Don’t open your door to a stranger, even if he says he is the police. Make him slide his ID under the door. Don’t stop on the road to help a motorist pretending to be in trouble. Keep the locks on and keep going. If anyone whistles, don’t turn to look. Don’t go into a laundromat, by yourself, at night.

I think about laundromats. What I wore to them: shorts, jeans, jogging pants. What I put into them: my own clothes, my own soap, my own money, money I had earned myself. I think about having such control.

Now we walk along the same street, in red pairs, and no man shouts obscenities at us, speaks to us, touches us. No one whistles. 

There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. Int eh days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it. (32-33)

We can actually see here how Atwood blends both the personal foil and the time-period comparison (and most of the time it’s pretty hard to splice them, really). And how both “sides” of the argument are being presented, to a degree. We can see how Offred gets the appeal of “freedom from” while also missing what she’s lost without “freedom to.” In this, we can almost feel like the anti-Gilead sentiments trying to be subtle, but this becomes less true as the story develops. 

We get this pattern in most of the comparisons–the comparison is made at the beginning of the novel, usually using dialogue or juxtaposing scenes (we get scenes of Moira in college making her feminist statements and Offred fighting back, thinking that Moira is too radical, for another instance). This is followed by development in the middle, too complex to cover in detail, but I’ll at least touch on how Aunt Lydia and Moira develop. 

In the middle of the novel, we see more of Moira and Offred agreeing, at least rhetorically. They converse more openly, and Offred seems genuinely more radical than in college, although in some ways she isn’t–what she seems to lack is the desire to take direct action. When Moria and Offred both end up at the Handmaid training center, Moira makes numerous attempts to escape (eventually successful, sort of) but Offred simply does as she’s told. 

We get a brief bit of introspection about Moira at the start of Chapter 28: 

They’ve given me a small electric fan, which helps in this humidity. It whirs on the floor, in the corner, its blades encased in grillework. If I were Moira, I’d know how to take it apart, reduce it to its cutting edges. I have no screwdriver, but if I were Moira I could do it without a screwdriver. I’m not Moira. (221)

Offred wants to act, as radically as anyone might in this case, forging a weapon from a fan, but she fells like she can’t

With the comparison to Aunt Lydia, you can see some further development in the two passages below, which are essentially talking about Offred’s mother and feminist activists like her, the first from Aunt Lydia’s POV, the second from Offred’s: 

Sometimes, though, the movie would be what Aunt Lydia called an Unwoman documentary. Imagine, said Aunt Lydia, wasting their time like that, when they should have been doing something useful. Back then, the unwomen were always wasting time. They were encouraged to do it. The government gave them money to do that very thing. Mind you, some of their ideas were sound enough, she went on, with the smug authority in her voice of one who is in a position to judge. We would have to condone some of their ideas, even today. Only some, mind you, she said coyly, raising her index finger, waggling it at us. But they were Godless, and that can make all the difference, don’t you agree? (153)

We see, in a video of these protesting “unwomen” the image of Offred’s mother, and that launches Offred into a flashback, culminating in this bit of introspection:

Sometimes she would cry. I was so lonely, she’d say. You have no idea how lonely I was. And I had friends, I was a lucky one, but I was lonely anyway.

I admired my mother in some ways, although thing between us were never easy. She expected too much from me, I felt. She expected me to vindicate her life for her, and the choices she’d made. I didn’t want to live my life on her terms. I didn’t want to be the model offspring, the incarnation of her ideas. We used to fight about that. I am not your justification for existence, I said to her once. 

I want her back. I want everything back, the way it was. But here is no point it it, this wanting. (156)

The more the comparison with Aunt Lydia develops, the more it becomes clear that Offred and Lydia do not see eye to eye, and that the narrative agrees with one more than the other–just based on the amount of time one voice gets compared to the other, even if you ignore tone. 

Also, a technique to notice here is that when characters begin pontificating, Atwood gives them objects and images that we can relate to. In this example with Offred’s mother, you can see that her mother is a stand-in for “all suffragettes” and their tactics, but in a way that is deeply personal to Offred. Simultaneously, we can imagine the footage being used as a jumping off point, and we can understand Offred’s emotions in reaction to seeing her mother. This gives the thematic content a sturdy, physical anchor. 

Offred usually views Aunt Lydia so distantly, a woman buried deep in her memories. It gets frustrating to see Lydia in her memories represented almost without direct comment. But when Aunt Lydia appears in the story physically, we finally get to the core of this comparison. We can see, in this moment, the resolution of the comparison: the end of the book dedicates itself largely to doing this. 

Offred sees Aunt Lydia on stage, and then:

I’ve begun to shiver. Hatred fills my mouth like spit. The sun comes out, and the stage and its occupants light up like a Christmas creche. I can see wrinkles under Aunt Lydia’s eyes, the pallor of the seated women, the hairs on the rope in front of me on the grass, the blades of grass. There is a dandelion, right in front of me, the color of egg yolk. I feel hungry. The bell stops tolling. 

Aunt Lydia stands up, smooths down her skirt with both hands, and steps forward to the mike. “Good afternoon, ladies,” she says, and there is an instant and earsplitting feedback whine from the PA system. From among us, incredibly, there is laughter. It’s hard not to laugh, it’s the tension, and the look of irritation on Aunt Lydia’s face as she adjust the sound. This is supposed to be dignified.

“Good afternoon ladies,” she says again, her voice now tinny and flattened. It’s ladies instead of girls because of the wives. “I’m sure we are all aware of the unfortunate circumstances that bring us all here together on this beautiful morning, when I am certain we would all rather e doing something else, at least I speak for myself, but duty is a hard taskmaster, or may I say on this occasion taskmistress, and it is in the name of duty that we are here today.”

She goes on like this for some minutes, but I don’t listen. I’ve heard this speech, or one like it, often enough before: the same platitudes, the same slogans, the same phrases: the torch of the future, the cradle of the race, the task before us. It’s hard to believe there will not be polite clapping after this speech, and tea and cookies served on the lawn. 

That was the prologue, I think. Now she’ll get down to it. 

Aunt Lydia rummages in her pocket, produces a crumpled piece of paper. This she takes an undue length of time to unfold and scan. She’s rubbing our noses in it, letting us know exactly who she is, making us watch her as she silently reads, flaunting her prerogative. Obscene, I think. Let’s get this over with. (353)

We see Offred here, viewing and contemplating on Aunt Lydia, in real time, for the first and only time. We see that not only does Offred have major political and social disagreements with Aunt Lydia, she also sees Aunt Lydia as quite ridiculous. It’s not just that her views are bad, they’re laughably, obscenely wrong. 

We can compare that to the resolution with Moira, which I won’t quote since this post has expanded rapidly. What I will say, though, is that when Moira’s comparison is resolved we find that she hasn’t, ultimately, escaped at all–even if it seems it at first. In this scene, it feels almost like Offred has surpassed Moira, and it makes us question how radical she ever really was. But we aren’t really directed to think of Moira as ridiculous or obscene for her views, just that she’s ended up not really succeeding. 

FINALLY:
That went on for a while, and could go on for a while longer. The last third of the novel or so, for instance, does this interesting move where the focus of comparison shifts from Offred and her female foils, to comparing three central male characters of the story. I’m not sure how I feel about this in a grander sense, because it seems to take focus away from the heart of the story, but these comparisons use similar tactics. 

As discussed, the external world of the story (its objects, people, and places) seems set up almost exclusively to inspire these comparisons. Also, the way information is revealed, the way scenes are ordered, and the way the plot moves seems shaped to allow the “contrast arc” to have really parallel form across timelines and characters–to allow Atwood to shift from establishing, to developing, to resolving. 

90% of the space in this novel is spent comparing and contrasting characters, events, places, philosophies. This post hardly scratches the surface. If you feel like some of the techniques here would be useful to you, definitely read the novel. There’s so much more you can take from it. 

Have you noticed any other techniques Atwood (or any author you’d like to talk about) uses to convey subject and judgement? Let me know.

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Because of how much time traveling it does, the narration of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale offers a bunch of useful examples of how to use control and contain your flashbacks. 

THE CHALLENGE: 
Back when I started writing, I had that standard fantasy-writer habit of delivering flashbacks by skipping a line and italicizing the text. As I developed as a writer, I came to hate doing that, and so I often just launched myself into flashbacks in the narration. 

But that confuses readers. Often. They lose track. They have to read again–it disrupts everything! 

So how do you do this the right way? 

THE STORY: 
Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a sci-fi staple. If you haven’t read it, please do. 

One of the striking things about this story is how it manages to be simultaneously highly evocative and emotive, and highly precise. This is a rare combination–most writers really do lean one way or the other. It offers a great chance to experience sentences that are short but feel as full as long sentences. 

Also, the narration is always in control–gracefully delivering flash backs even right in the narration. Here’s an example (which I suppose I should warn you, is horrific):


It’s Janine, telling about how she was gang-raped at fourteen and had an abortion. She told the same story last week. She seemed almost proud of it, while she was telling. It may not even be true. At Testifying, it’s safer to make things up than to say you have nothing to reveal. But Since it’s Janine, it’s probably more or less true. 

But whose fault was it? Aunt Helena says, holding up one plump finger. 

Her fault, her fault, her fault, we chant in unison. 


Who led them on? Aunt Helena beams, pleased with us. 

She didShe did. She did. 

Why did God allow such a terrible thing to happen? 

Teach her a lesson. Teach her a lessson. Teach her a lesson. 

Last week, Janine burst into tears. Aunt Helena made her kneel at the front of the classroom, hands behind her back, where we could all see her, her red face and dripping nose. Her hair dull blond, her eyelashes so light them seemed not there, the lost eyelashes of someone who’s been in a fire. Burned eyes. She looked disgusting: weak, squirmy, blotchy, pink, like a newborn mouse. None of us wanted to look like that, ever. For a moment, even though we knew what was being done to her, we despised her. 

Crybaby. Crybaby. Crybaby. 

We meant it, which is the bad part. 

I used to think well of myself. I didn’t then. 

That was last week. This week Janine doesn’t wait for us to jeer at her. It was my fault, she says. It was my own fault. I led them on. I deserved the pain. —PG93


THE SOLUTION: 
There are two ways that Atwood seems to help us keep up with this flashback, which might have been alarmingly confusing, because both settings are the same, and the characters are the same. Both of them are really quite simple–it’s astounding how often seemingly complex problems can have simple technical solutions, in writing. 

First, we’re warned of the flashback in the setup. We’re told that Janine told the same story two weeks in a row. This is an important context clue that foreshadows our eventual transition into flashback. 

And the last is to simply include the marker of “last week” as–more or less–a set of brackets. We begin the flashback with [last week] and end with [that was last week]. This method derives its power from it’s clarity and precision, it’s simplicity. 

It’s the closing bracket that I usually fail to include, because it feels like repeating information the reader already has. But it isn’t–it’s informing the reader that the flashback has ended. Another mistake I’ve often made in my embedded flashbacks is that I burry that first marker of time, organizing the sentence as “Janine burst into tears, last week.” Sometimes even with another phrase on the end, like “Janine burst into tears, last week, when we said this.”

I’m sure this is some self-conscious reflex on my part, trying to hide the mechanics of my writing. But it just creates needless confusion and weakens the usefulness of the tool. 

FINALLY: 
So it’s important to remember how simple writing can be, on a technical level. I keep saying it, and forgetting it, invariably. 

For embedded flashbacks to work, it helps to offer context clues and foreshadowing, but it also includes simple markers for the beginning and end. 

Thanks for reading!

How do you handle flashbacks in your writing? Do you have a key flashback passage you turn to for guidance? What else strikes you about this passage or this book? Let me know.

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Writing dialogue is one of those elements of fiction that is harder than it seems at first. But when you come across well-done conversations in fiction, they immediately pop off the page, like the long section of dialogue in Michael Wehunt’s Story in The Dark, “Birds of Lancaster, Lairimore, Lovejoy.”

THE CHALLENGE:

My biggest beef with my dialogue, often, is how thin it feels. Compared with description, which often has a flow and moments of transition, dialogue can often feel too back and forth to come to any particular point, and too flimsy to communicate a lot of subtext.

At the same time, you want to keep your dialogue concise and conversational. If you weigh it down with too much description or shovel complex sentences into your characters’ mouths, it becomes unrealistic and jarring for the reader.


How do you resolve these seeming contradictions?

THE STORY:

While “Birds of Lancaster, Lairimore, Lovejoy” wasn’t one of my favorite Wehunt stories, it stood out from a lot of his work because a large chunk of it is dialogue, and it seemed like exceptionally successful dialogue at that. It’s odd how little he uses dialogue in his other work.

That said, this story is plenty enjoyable, short, and a fairly good introduction to the kinds of stories The Dark prefers.

It also has a fantastic trick dialogic trick that will help me with my challenge.

THE SOLUTION:

During the second scene of this story, Wehunt has a conversation between main character, Kay, and a boy nicknamed “Eggs” which takes up a rather large portion of the total story. It’s arguably the most important part of his whole tale—and it’s mostly just unadorned (or lightly adorned) lines of dialogue.

But the key to this dialogue is how, before it begins, the story creates context. And as it progresses, it turns and decontextualizes itself before ending the conversation.

We can see that in action using two different short excerpts from the story.

In the first, setting up the conversation, Kay has just stopped a group of boys from bullying a girl on a bike, shouting “Get away from her!” and chasing them off before realizing her mistake. Shown here:

“Kay understood the echo the second she knelt beside the pink helmet. Its owner was a boy. And he clearly had Down syndrome. His face was one she recognized from hundreds of commercials, that painful similarity of features. She felt a hot flush of shame at this thought and at the fact she was dwelling on it while the boy was crying with blood dribbling out of his nose.”

From this paragraph, we gain the understanding that Kay feels ashamed about misgendering Eggs in front of these bullies, and that she feels even worse about focusing on her own feelings while this kid is literally bleeding on the ground.

That’s the emotional context that the following dialogue takes place in, and it serves well as an introduction.

In the following dialogue, they continue to have two more misunderstandings, a pattern set up by context, so that we don’t get confused during the conversation. It also serves as an explanation for why Kay plans on going out of her way to help the boy get home. She’s willing to do this for him because she embarrassed him.

The conversation ends with a twist: that just like Kay, Eggs’ mom has died and his dad has retreated into negligent drunkenness.

This twist requires further context, so we get the following paragraph.

But she thought she knew. Two sentences and she saw it as if through a lens. Or assumed it, which she figured was a pretty safe bet. The special room would be a den of sorts, where a negligent animal laid itself up. For a moment she smelled the ghost of her own father’s breath. Its sour whiskey fumes. The bruises that would sometimes—rarely, but far from never—follow it. Something fell over in her mind, a sort of mirror image bleeding in the street here with her, and she decided to hell with her father. She would get in her car and drive back to Storrs, and he could slip away in his hospital bed, tied to beeping machines and tubes. She’d wrestle the paperwork when he was already gone. All these years of estrangement had grown cozy enough. Why break it here at the end?

This paragraph is vital in a few ways. For one, it’s the first real introduction we get to the main character’s internal struggle. But secondly, more vitally, it shows how the dialogue is progressing the story, turning events toward the main character’s main conflict. Functionally, it offers context so we can understand the rest of the dialogue.

Kay goes on to question Eggs about his relationship with his father. Personal, probing questions that would seem senseless without the recontextualizing of the
conversation. The context allows us to infer intent on Kay’s part—she wants to find how if things are bad at home for Eggs.

It also allows us to understand her final choice in this important interaction: she lets him go to his bike race, despite his injuries, because she’s thinking about his home life in the context of her past.

FINALLY:

Dialogue requires a descriptive context for it to feel like a real conflict, with desires and goals. For Wehunt, at least, it seems most efficient and productive to separate this context from much of the dialogue itself, giving it in well-developed paragraphs that lead into different goals.

How do you create dialogue that is meaningful to the story and impactful? Do you have strategies for making conflict and desire clear in a scene that is largely conversational? If you have any examples you turn to for powerful dialogue, I’d love to hear about them.

Thanks for reading! 

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Two things immediately jumped out at me while reading Brown Girl in the Ring: Hopkinson’s muscular pacing over the course of what is ultimately a simple but suspenseful plot and her powerful control of language that is not only readable but also lyrical. In this post, we’re going to take a look at the latter, especially when it comes to descriptions of magical moments. 

The Challenge: 
When you have to write a moment that feels otherworldly, because it’s magical or because it’s literally on another world, it can be hard to know exactly how to approach it. A minefield of possible mistakes: a jarring and confusing landing, wording that feels sufficiently magical but lacks precision or fails to create an image, or just a basic failure to connect at all. 

To clue me in, I took a look at this novel by Nalo Hopkinson. 

The Story:
Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring was a thrilling read, and the kind of book where you can discover nuggets of wisdom all over the place. It’s got a plot that’s both compelling and steadily-paced, and it has incredible moments of linguistic strength. That latter bit plays a huge role in the ability of this author to describe magical moments in her story, two of which are excerpted below: 

Excerpt 1
I should help her. I have to help her, but God, the dazer! Tony heard Ti-Jeanne whimper, risked looking out of the corners of his eyes. Jay was frog-marching Ti-Jeanne over to the bushes, Crapaud scuttling alongside, gun still held nervously on her. 
And then Ti-Jeanne chuckled in a deep, rumbling voice, the same unearthly sound that she’d made in the chapel. ‘Brothers, brothers, don’t fight! It have plenty of me to go around.’ She suddenly seemed much taller than Jay. She broke his hold with ease, reached to her own neck with long, long arms, and grasped the head of Crapaud’s dazer. He fired. She shivered, apparently in ecstasy as the power surged through her. She smiled lovingly at Crapaud. ‘Ah, me brother; you know how pain could be sweet, ain’t? You want to go first?’ 
Crapaud released the dazer, took a step back. Ti-Jeanne/Prince of Cemetery took a daddy-long-legs step over to him, put a hand on his shoulder. The man did the crazy dance of the dazeshot and fell twitching to the ground. Jay rushed Prince of Cemetery, who picked him up like a baby and cradled him to its bony chest. 

Excerpt 2
They were coming up the Strip; Yonge Street, the dividing line between the east and the west sides of the city. For some minutes now they’d been able to hear the buzz of voices and music and see the glow of light that rose from the Strip, above the city buildings. The Strip came alive at night . . . 
The noise and lights crashed on their senses. If you didn’t look too closely, you could believe that the Strip was the same as it had been before the Riots. Garish storefronts flashed crazed neon outlines of naked women with anatomically unlikely endowments. Deeplight ads glowed at the doors to virtually every establishment: moving 3-D illusions that were hyped-up, glossy lies about the pleasures to be found inside.

The Solution: 
There are several key techniques worth noticing in these excerpts. 

  1. You can see the standard practice of known to new used in practice in both of these excerpts. Before launching into the magical description of the strip, it gets mentioned casually in the posterior of a sentence in the previous paragraph, so we’re ready to take in a description when the next paragraph returns to the topic, opening by mentioning the strip. Even the magicality of the description is known beforehand: “The Strip came alive at night.” We’re prepared to see it come alive by the time the metaphorical “crash” takes place. In Excerpt one, you can see the same thing taking place, if in a weaker form, with the mentioning of Ti-Jeanne at the end of the first paragraph, transitioning into her transformation. 
  2. Excerpt 1, easily the strangest and most magical of the two (thus the hardest to communicate), goes even further, syntactically. It focuses on Ti-Jeanne as the subject throughout the paragraph, holding on to her as the “known” information, introducing a new piece of magical information at the end of each sentence. This allows the paragraph to retain a sense of cohesion, making the moment easier to parse. Taking a somewhat similar approach, Excerpt 2 begins each sentence with a mundane part of any familiar “strip” and then uses the end of the sentence to add magic to the description. 
  3. As magical as the moments seemed in text, Hopkinson actually describes these events simply and precisely. In Excerpt 1, she describes a change in height by comparing Ti-Jeanne to another (rather tall) character, and we get a number of vivid verbs and adjectives: “daddy-long-legs” and “cradled.” We see the same precise word choice in Excerpt 2 (“crashed,” “flashed” and “crazed neon”) displaying Hopkinson’s powerful sense of language and obvious attention to detail. 

Finally:
What we can see here is a simple but effective framework for getting across magical moments. Pay careful attention to your word choice. Use an uncommon verb or adjective, or even an invented compound word, that pops off the page (Hopkinson’s gets across an entire metaphor in a single word) and let it pull weight for you. Try to set up your reader for the description by focusing your subject matter over a paragraph and following a known/new construction.

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In speaking about structure, few novels dazzle like A Canticle to Leibowitz, and so I thought it would be nice to look at that structure on one of the prominent levels: the chapter. Beware, spoilers ahead! Well, at least spoilers for the first chapter since largely we will be speaking about plot. But the first chapter is lovely, so I understand if you don’t want to ruin it. 

The Challenge: 

Novels are one of those amorphous structures. Some people say it’s one thing, others say it’s another, and ultimately it’s probably both and more. What it comes down to (what it seems always to come down to with novel writing) is to do what you can to cobble something cohesive together, no matter the strengths or weaknesses of your approach. 

So what can we do to cobble together a strategy? The best way I’ve found is to look at other people’s chapters. 

The Story:

One of those seminal sci-fi classics, A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. really is required reading. It first appeared in the mid-to-late fifties as a series of novellas published in Fantasy and Science Fiction and was published in 1959 after a little bit of expansion. This publication schedule is one of the things that gives it its unique structure. The book sprung from the author’s guilt and anger at his participation in the bombing of Monte Cassino monastery in WWII, resulting in a work just spilling with affect. 

Chapter structures really run the gamut. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, Marquez designs chapters that take huge thematic arcs spanning over years or decades, drawing their cohesion largely from the way the summary weaves through the events, manufacturing structure wholesale (perhaps I’ll have to do that next time!). As you’ll see, Canticle takes a significantly different route to the same result, although it carries widely by chapter in my chosen story. 

Following we’ll take a look at one of most cohesive chapters, the first. 

The Solution:

Canticle
‘s first chapter opens like with this:

“Brother Francis Gerard of Utah might never have discovered the blessed documents, had it not been for the pilgrim with the girded loins who appeared during that young novice’s Lenten fast in the desert” (3). 

This is the sort of sentence that I, at least (and I think many other writers), recognize fairly immediately as an organizational tool. I’ve taken to calling it an “Occasion” but I’ve seen other names for it as well. It’s this that justifies the chapter’s existence, that makes it special, that signifies how it will make the story move forward. The occasion is not always made clear in this direct a way, but it can be often useful to do so in first chapters, since that chapter cannot be riding off of any previous information or any previous suspense.

But this sentence also does something else: it provides a neat, two part outline, a to do list of sorts. 1: discover the blessed documents, and 2: the pilgrim with the girded loins must appear. 


As a further comment on this section (although perhaps I’m reading too far into it), it’s interesting that these events are listed in the order opposite of how they will occur (maybe this immediately destabilizes you–you’re instantly in need of doing a small equation, instantly engaged. It seems at least, to have some momentum to it). So here, at least, is an outline of the run-in with the Pilgrim. I’ve separated the paragraphs out into arcs, each of which involves a desire or intent and obstacles for Francis to struggle against. 

Arc 1. Intent: Solve the mystery of the Pilgrim. 
           Obstacle: the Pilgrim is too far away. 
           Paragraphs 2 – 10, mostly world building and details about the Pilgrim to set up conflict 
Arc 2. Intent: Get answers from the Pilgrim. 
           Obstacle: He has taken a vow of silence and wishes to uphold the law of his faith. 
           Paragraphs 11 – 17, he fails at finding answers but succeeds at remaining silent. 
Arc 3. Intent: to build a structure for safety at night. 
            Obstacle: It’s grueling hard work. 
            Paragraphs 18 – 26, which return to alternating between world building and setting up the next conflict 
Arc 4. Intent: Get answers from the Pilgrim 
            Obstacle: He still wants to uphold his vow of silence. 
            Paragraphs 27 -35, in which he fails at keeping silent but succeeds at getting some answers (exit Pilgrim)
Arc 5. Intent: go back to building structure
            Paragraphs 36 – 37, A Brief Interlude
Arc 6. Intent: Explore the pit revealed by the Pilgrim
            Obstacle: it’s too small to fit down; also, FEAR (high chance of rabid animals down there)
            Paragraphs 38 – 44, Francis fails to face his fear
Arc 7. Intent: back to building his structure
           Obstacle: grueling hard work; also, distracted by the possibilities of the pit      
           Paragraphs 45 – 48
Arc 8. Intent: Clear way into pit
            Obstacle: a bunch of rocks and boulders
            Paragraphs 49 – 52, he succeeds in clearing it
Arc 9. Intent: Explore the pit
            Obstacle: fear!
            Paragraphs 53 – 56 

A few things I immediately noticed.

First, there’s a nice balance to the arcs–they seem to switch back and forth between arcs that pursue the plot full-speed and arcs that rock back into the everyday, allowing suspense and mystery to build. The latter also give much needed pauses for world-building. There’s also this almost mechanical, finely tuned balance to the conflicts–he chases his intent with a couple strategies, fails and gives up, but then tries a second time and succeeds. These are try-fail cycles, of course, that oft-spoken-of tool, but they look a little different than I’ve seen because there are basically two complete tries full of micro-attempts. Also, the try-fail cycles with the Pilgrim have a lot of tension because succeeding in one way causes him to fail in another. 


This little outline I’ve made, seen without the organizing occasion, would come across as pretty disorderly. The cohesiveness of this chapter is not subtle–it depends totally on knowing the trajectory of the chapter: this pilgrim is going to lead him to a set of blessed documents. Knowing that allows us to pick out what’s important and forget what isn’t. And if you’re paying attention, you’ll notice one last thing. 

This outline does not end with the finding of the documents. In fact, the chapter ends with the following words: 

“The novice stared at the sign in dismay. Its meaning was plain enough. He had unwittingly broken into the abode (deserted, he prayed) of not just one  but fifteen of the dreadful beings [Fallouts]! He groped for his phial of holy water” (17). 

This chapter ends on a pretty suspenseful cliffhangar. We get an implication of danger, but we know he’s going to go down there because the first sentence told us so. We can already start to build the next arc in our minds. His intent will be to search the abode, and his obstacle will to risk injury. Will he have to fail at one of those things to succeed at the other?

We are anticipating this in these final moments of the chapter, partially because of the opening. 


Finally:

It may be more accurate to call this a half-structure. In one chapter we’ve been given half of the occasion, and made to anticipate the second half, which comes in the second chapter. This is probably my biggest takeaway, as that usage of occasion is different than what I’m used to. But also, the structure relies on the balance of the try fail cycles and the clarity of intention and obstacle.

All of these things come together to form a chapter that, if not elegant or subtle, is still enthralling. 



What do you think of the outline? Does it bring any other stories or scenes to mind? For those of you who’ve read A Canticle for Leibowitz, is this reflected in any of the later chapters, or is this strategy particularly first-chapter-ish?

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Let’s take a look today at how to handle capital-D Drama. As with many things in fiction, drama requires a particular balance, and we’re going to examine a scene from How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff, a young adult near future science fiction novel that I highly recommend. To look at this, we’ll be dissecting a specific scene, and it does include some minor spoilers. 

The Challenge:

It’s hard, when I get to that moment I’ve been building toward, where everything has come to a head and something has to happen. How do you handle scenes of high emotion without melodrama but still with impact? Seems my pendulum always swings back and forth between the extremes of giving up drama and giving up impact. 

For some answers, I turned to a novel I’d read years ago. 

The Story:

Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now is about an American girl living in Britain when things really hit the fan–they’re invaded and conquered by a mysterious, unnamed enemy. It’s a young adult romance and adventure novel that is both emotionally impactful and full of suspense. There are few novels I recommend as easily as this one, even to people who don’t often read. It reads quick and leaves a mark. It balances blot and character masterfully. And the prose is beautiful in a simple, streamlined way. 

For my purposes, I analyzed a scene toward the middle, at the end of a chapter of descriptive summary, little more than a list of chores in this fairly transitional moment of the story. Read the short scene below: 

One night we were driving home through the usual checkpoints and Piper and I were asleep and Joe, who sometimes came with us to stay with his parents in the village, suddenly took it into his head to stand up and get show-offy, and I guess thinking war was some kind of open discussion forum where everyone was really interested in your opinion, started shouting a whole bunch of obscenities at one of the checkpoint guards and when Major McEvoy told him to sit down in a really icy army tone of voice he ignored him and kept shouting stuff about Johnny Foreigner being an Effing Bastard and worse. 

And then in almost a lazy kind of way the checkpoint guy who’d been looking at him raised his gun and pulled the trigger and there was a loud crack and part of Joe’s face exploded and there was blood everywhere and he fell over out of the truck into the road. 

Piper watched the whole thing without moving a muscle but the shock of it made me retch and I had to turn away over the side of the truck. Someone else was screaming and when I turned back the whole world seemed to have slowed down and grown quiet and from inside the silence I watched the guard go right back to chatting with his friend and saw Major McEvoy’s head roll back for a moment and his eyes close and a look of despair crumple up his face and in that split second I wondered whether he was really that attached to the kid and then it was with horror that I looked down and saw that Joe was still alive, gurgling and trying to move the arm that wasn’t caught under his body and when I looked back at Major M I realized he was doing what he felt was his duty as a member of the armed forces defending a British national and still in slow motion he was climbing out of the truck and his plan must have been to get Joe to his feet somehow and then to safety when I heard about a hundred shots from a machine gun and the momentum of the blasts hurled Major M backward across the road away from Joe with blood welling up in holes all over him and this time you could see Joe’s condition was 100% dead and with brains splattered everywhere and our driver didn’t wait around to see what might happen next but just stepped on the gas and as we drove away I thought I felt tears on my face but when I put my hand up to wipe them it turned out to be blood and nobody made a single sound but just sat there shell-shocked and all I could think about was poor Major M lying there in the dust through I guess he was much too dead to notice. 

There never were seven more silent human beings in the back of a truck, we were too stunned even to cry or speak. When we reached Reston Bridge our driver, who I knew was a close friend of the Major’s, got out of the truck and stood there for a minute trying to get up the courage to go inside and tell Mrs. M what happened, but first he turned to us and said in a voice full of rage, In case anyone needed reminding This is a War. 

And the way he said those words made me feel like I was falling (103 – 105). 


The Solution: 

At five paragraphs and about two pages, this is a decidedly short scene (although not too short for the book’s average), but it does a deceptive amount of work to both control the drama and heighten the impact. It’s doing a good bit of complex work to maintain this delicate balance, and I’ll try to pick that apart here. 

First a brief outline of the scene, as I see it: 

Paragraph 1. (Setup). Scene conflict begins, exposition is given with a humorous tone. 
Paragraph 2. (Escalation). One shot. A distant description of the bloody scene. 
Paragraph 3. (Reaction & Further Escalation). A wide range of reactions from a number of different people. A little more humor. Much longer sentences. 
Paragraph 4. (Deflation). A very muted response and a clean getaway that also connects the loss of life to the wider world. 
Paragraph 5. (Effect). A single, punchy line on how the protagonist has been changed by this scene. 

So how does this scene attempt to control drama, minimize melodrama? There are a number of ways that this is being done. Paragraph 1, for instance, seems only to exist for this function. It’s using humor to deflate the tension, exposition to slow the pace, summary (mimicking the rest of the chapter, which was fairly low-key) that creates a level of distance, and it even uses a linguistic trick to add to the drudgery (“usual checkpoint”). It’s routine. It’s a chore–just like the rest of the chapter, this will be every-day. That, of course, is not how it pans out. 

Paragraph 2 uses a similar linguistic trick when it describes the shot as “lazy”–the laziness of it reduces the melodrama. In Paragraph 3, a return to humor seems to aid the reduction of melodrama (100% dead). We also get a number of characters who fail to react in any active way to this shot–Piper watches “without moving a muscle,” the guard goes “right back to chatting with his friend,” and the driver who did nothing but “not wait around.” These muted reactions serve as a counter balance to the descriptions of gore and to the narrator’s response. Paragraph 4 continues the muted response, allowing it to spread to the rest of the car. Meanwhile, Paragraph 5 does little to manage the drama–how does the scene’s final line have such a strong impact? 

While Paragraph 1 is the touchstone paragraph for controlling melodrama, Paragraph 3 is its counterpart, a keystone in developing impact. It does this in a large number of ways. Firstly, we have the more dramatic character reactions: the narrator, who retches, and Major M, who reacts with nothing short of anguish, not to mention Joe himself, twitching on the ground. There is also the natural drama of further escalation of the conflict (going from Joe, a minor nobody, dying to the death of Major M, who we’ve come to know and who was a central figure of this chapter, and the imagery usage (like tears that transformed into blood). Beyond those things, there is also the massive and sudden stretching of sentence length (so long it’s almost beyond comprehension) using polysyndeton (lots of “ands”) that makes each sentence feel like a constant barrage of horrors. 

The other paragraphs build upon this one, adding minor touches of drama to increase the impact. In Paragraph 2, drama comes from the conflict escalation and the use of face-explosion imagery. In Paragraph 4, emotions are driven home by revealing the delayed anger of the driver (This is a War) and focusing on who is hurt (Major M’s wife). Finally, in Paragraph 5, the tragic punch line, a single, lonely line, a structure that serves to emphasize how alone the narrator feels, further hitting home the imagery of falling. 

Finally:

It’s the delicate balance of this passage that makes it work so well. Just look, for instance, at the “sandwich” created by the first paragraph, which only works to reduce melodrama, and the fifth paragraph, which only works to increase impact. And the sparseness of Paragraph 2 contrasts with the extravagance of Paragraph 3 to create a similar sense of balance.

Ultimately, what I take from this scene is that, while there are consistent strategies worth knowing for reducing melodrama and increasing impact, the brilliance of this scene comes from structure–how those methods are designed to balance each other. 

Is there anything you’d add? Are there any scenes that you’ve read that should have been melodramatic but ended up deeply moving you without going over the edge? I’d love to hear about this or anything else you have to say. 







 

 

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Clicking the image to the left will take you to the Amazon page for the edition I own of Jeff Vandermeer’s Area X trilogy, which we’ll be talking about today. Obviously, I don’t expect you to read the entire novel just in preparation for this post, but I’ll be providing a few pages below for context and I’ll try to avoid spoilers as much as possible.

Let’s talk about talk. 

The Challenge:

I avoid dialogue. Part of that comes from what I read–most of the short fiction I’ve read is notably sparse on speech. But as I switch back into novel gears, I’ve noticed more and more how unavoidable dialogue is, and how compelling it can be in a sea of prose. There’s just one problem: my dialogue muscles are flabby from under-use. I can’t seem to write dialogue that moves the plot forward (or even understand what that means), and the language of it feels unreal, useless, loose. My writing loses the sort of density of purpose that I’ve come to expect of it. 

Is it even possible to write dialogue like I want? 

The Story:

The Area X trilogy is a fascinating modern weird fiction. Shorter than your average novels (averaging out at about 250 pages), they read quickly and they take weird fiction right into scifi territory–and it’s the overlap of weird and scifi that tends to grab me the best. So these books really swept me up–they’re doing a lot of things that I desperately want to do. 

I will say, as a word of caution, that if you can’t stand mysteries that extend over several books (and indeed, may never be answered) then these books probably aren’t for you, ultimately. But there are still some great gems of technique, and one of those is dialogue. 

In this book in particular, Vandermeer’s dialogue is superb. It feels combative, high-stake, and tightly crafted. Here are two excerpts relevant to our discussion today, from the second book, Authority. First, one from the very first chapter: 

First day. The beginning of his last chance. 

“These are the survivors?”

Control stood beside the assistant director of the Sourthern Reach, behind smudged one-way glass, staring that the three individuals sitting in the interrogation room. Returnees from the twelfth expedition into Area X. 

The assistant director, a tall, thin black woman in her forties, said nothing back, which didn’t surprise Control. She hadn’t wasted an extra word on him since he’d arrived that morning after taking Monday to get settled. She hand’t spared him an extra look, either, except when he’d told her and the rest of the staff to call him “Control,” not “John” or “Rodriguez.” She had paused a beat, then replied, “In that case, call me Patience, not Grace,” much to the stifled amusement of those present. The deflection away from her real name to one that also meant something else interested him. “That’s okay,” he’d said, “I can just call you Grace,” certain this would not please her. She parried by continually referring to him as the “acting director. Which was true: There lay between her stewardship and his ascension a gap, a valley of time and forms to be filled out, procedures to be followed, the rooting out and hiring of staff. Until then, the issue of authority might be murky. 

But Control preferred to think of her as neither patience nor grace. He preferred to think of her as an abstraction if not an obstruction. She had made him sit through an old orientation video about Area X, must have known it would be basic and out of date. She had already made clear that theirs would be a relationship based on animosity. From her side, at least. 

“Where were they found?” he asked her now, when what he wanted to ask was why they hadn’t been kept separate from one another. Because you lack the discipline, because your department has been going to the rats for a long time now? The rats are down there in the basement now, gnawing away. 

“Read the files,” she said, making it clear he should have read them already.

Then she walked out of the room. (133-134)


Now, their third exchange in the book, only a little while later. 

“You interviewed just the biologist. I still do not know why.” She said this before he could extend even a tendril of an opening gambit…and all of his resolve to play the diplomat, to somehow become her colleague, not her enemy–even if by misdirection or a metaphorical jab in the kidneys–dissolved into the humid air. 

He explained his thought processes. She seemed impressed, although he couldn’t really read her yet. 

“Did she ever seem, during training, like she was hiding something?” he asked. 

“Deflection. You think she is hiding something.”

“I don’t know yet, actually. I could be wrong”

“We have more expert interrogators than you.”

“Probably true.”

“We should send her to Central.”

The thought made him shudder. 

“No,” he said, a little too emphatically, then worried in the next split second that the assistant director might guess that he cared about the biologist’s fate. 

“I have already sent the anthropologist and the surveyor away.”

Now he could smell the decay of all that plant matter slowly rotting beneath the surface of the swamp, could sense the awkward turtles and stunted fish pushing their way through matted layers. He didn’t trust himself to turn to face her. Didn’t trust himself to say anything, stood there suspended by his surprise. 

Cheerfully, she continued: “You said they weren’t of any use, so I sent them to Central.”

“By whose authority?”

“Your authority. You clearly indicated to me that this was what you wanted. If you meant something else, my apologies.”

A tiny seismic shift occurred inside of Control, an imperceptible shudder. 

They were gone. he couldn’t have them back. He had to put it out of his mind, would feed himself the lie that Grace had done him a favor, simplified his job. Just how much pull did she have at Central, anyway?

“I can always read the transcripts if I change my mind,” he said, attempting an agreeable tone. They’d still be questioned, and he’d given her the opening by saying he didn’t want to interview them. 

She was scanning his face intently, looking for some sign that she’d come close to hitting the target. 

He tried to smile, doused his anger with the thought that if the assistant director had meant him real harm, she would have found a way to spirit the biologist away, too. This was just a warning. Now, thought, he was going to have to take. something away from Grace as well. Not to get even but so she wouldn’t be tempted to take yet more from him. He couldn’t afford to lose the biologist, too. Not yet. 

Into the awkward silence, Grace asked, “Why are you just standing out here in the heat like an idiot?” Breezily, as if nothign had happened at all. “We should go inside. It’s time for lunch, and you can meet some of the admin.” (150-151)

The Solution:

To keep this as tight an analysis as possible, I decided to limit my talk to the three big takeaways that these two exchanges seem to be dishing out. 

1. Be Efficient:

A lot of the lean feeling of this exchange comes from it actually being lean. The spoken sentences are quite short, almost to the point of feeling stilted, and reading it out loud does not produce an exchange that sounds in anyway human. They’re worse than Spock. This may not work in all dialogue (I’d have to go looking for more–and maybe I will) but when two characters are speaking in this sort of conflict-heavy manner, it seems to really work. 

Another way Vandermeer keeps it lean is by not letting it get too chatty. When Control isn’t sure what to say, he just says nothing, and Grace picks the conversation back up. And when Control is explaining something we already know, he summarizes it (“He explained his thought process.”). Finally, he makes sure the conversation isn’t side tracked into obvious distractions from the task at hand (“We have more expert interrogators than you” could have devolved into a pointless argument, but instead led into “Probably true.”).

As a final note on efficiency (all this can only have come from ruthless cutting, right?), all of the conversations end rather rapidly with a line of narration or a quick quote into the next scene. 

2. Move the Story Forward

Maybe this is not the only way to move story forward in a dialogue (BIG REVEALS come to mind) but this conversation uses an interesting technique: limitation. When Grace declares that she’s sent the other members of the team away, this of course functions as a reveal, but that’s not how it’s affecting the plot.  What it serves to do is tell the reader where the plot will be going–in essence it says “Don’t get distracted by these other three people, they don’t matter.” At that point we realize (and we had some reason to suspect this) that the story won’t be wasting its time with the other scientists. 

Of all the typical advice about dialogue, this was perhaps the one I knew the best but found the most mysterious. Here, at least, is one practical example of how it’s used in actual work, which was fascinating to me.

3. So Much of this Dialogue is Under the Surface

In the first segment, a bunch of narration is basically invaded by two short exchanges of dialogue. Mostly, I included that first segment because of how important the context of it is for the second exchange to make any sense at all. Providing this context lets the reader know, pretty much immediately in this story, that these two are playing a verbal chess game, and that colors all of their future interactions. Largely, these characters want the same thing, but they are heavily antagonistic to each other, and we’re never sure if we can trust Grace. 

I don’t know, but I certainly would expect, that the second exchange would be quite hard to follow without this context. Even without the gentle reminders of theirs conflict between lines in the second dialogue, it would be a little hard to understand why Grace has done something that seems to be against her own interests. But because of the context, and the stuff taking place under the surface (the breakdowns of communication) we can understand that not only did Grace do this purposefully to upset Control, she did it despite the fact that it would cost her. 

Finally:

Perhaps the ultimate take away is that I’ve been writing dialogue far too flippantly. It takes an aggressive level of forethought (or post-thought or both) to write a solid piece of dialogue. Even a brief, two line exchange without this level of interrogation may corrupt your sense of strength and pacing. And ultimately, powerful dialogue boils down to concisely displaying conflict between two characters. 

What do you think of the three tips above? Might you add any others? Do you have any scenes of dialogue you go back to for tips now and again? I’d love to hear them and take a look at them myself.

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king-ratClicking the picture to the left will take you to the Amazon page for King Rat by China Mieville. Seems obvious to  me that you won’t be reading this novel in preparation for reading this blog post, but we’ll be talking about plot so beware of spoilers below. Today I’m going to be talking about plot–the first act of a novel–in the sense of how Mieville keeps his readers interested. 

The Challenge:

People (and writing books) have a lot of advice for how to start a novel. Much of this advice seems contradictory–for instance the idea that you need to start immediately with high-stakes conflict, but the sort of opposing idea that no one will care about those high stakes until they care about your characters. So wait, do you start with solid conflict? Or do you start with character? Or is it some strange amalgam of both, precariously balanced? Although I don’t know yet, I imagine it’s some version of the latter, although perhaps King Rat does little to really clear this up, beyond providing an interesting example. 

The Story:

Mieville’s debut novel, King Rat, has its weaknesses. They’re fairly evident: sometimes the prose gets far too purple with little to gain from it, some major characters lack any real kind of agency (which might have improved some portions of the book), and the very end reads like rather forced, disingenuous philosophizing (although that ending still interested me, because of how different it was from most novel ends, philosophically). That said, this book blew me away because of it’s array of morally-grey characters, its distinct plot twists, and a handful of exceptional prose moments, full of poetry and voice. It also managed to really keep my attention in Act 1. 

Well, not exactly. Chapter 1 left me unmoved, and so did chapter 2, largely (although the structure of this piece, with multiple clipped little narratives, was fascinating), but the end of chapter 2 through chapter 8 really had me enthralled. I began to wonder why. What exactly was driving this opening?

The Solution:

Mieville tries to open with high-stakes conflict. The story opens with (following an excruciating driving/subwaying-to-the-story scene) the murder of Saul (the protagonist’s) father, and Saul’s subsequent arrest for this crime. Ultimately, this bored me. One reason for this was simply confusion: beyond the level of mystery, I had no idea what was going on. The disjointed narrative of chapter 2 probably contributed to this. But also, we never met Saul’s father on the page, so his death had no effect on me, and although Saul seemed pretty distraught by his father’s death, it didn’t reach me. 

And maybe part of the reason I was unmoved by this initial conflict was a lack of a clear desire for the main character. Actually, Saul does not develop a desire at all until the end of Act 1, and does not become fully active until the end of Act 2. 

But when the title character hit the page, he immediately increased my engagement with the story. He was strange, he was gross, he was dark and of questionable morality. And that level of engagement for the next six chapters remained fairly high (on average), but also kept a number of those qualities, following a fairly predictable sort of structure. Each chapter had a central purpose. Chapter 3 showed King Rat and Saul escaping from prison. Chapter 4 described Saul’s lunch. What made these chapters intriguing was context–all this took place in (as the text constantly affirmed) a new world. This Act 1 is a kind of exploration, and that exploration has the same flavor as King Rat himself–in Chapter 4, Saul’s lunch is strange and gross and dark. 

Two caveats here. (1) There were some mini conflicts going on, although they didn’t really capture me. These were necessary and important in the longer term of the plot, foreshadowing later conflicts that come to the fore in acts 2 and 3. (2) If you broaden the definition of conflict enough, you might argue that this whole act is a conflict, Saul interacting with and coming to terms with this new world he’s exploring. And there’s a good point there, but I think it overgeneralizes something super practical: some readers engage most with a story when it takes them somewhere new. Exploring a world vastly different from your own is a pleasurable part of reading. That pleasure can drive a reader through your story. 

When does lunch capture a reader’s interest? When it’s surreal. 

When does an easy prison break become intriguing? When it launches you into a new world. 

Finally:

Despite its failings, I fully recommend King Rat especially if you enjoy genuinely strange novels. What works here works exceptionally well. Perhaps the greatest takeaway for me was that strangeness can drive a story, and sometimes frontloading conflict for the sake of frontloading conflict can do more harm than good. 

What’s your take on strangeness vs. conflict? Let me know in the comments. 


Written by 
fsf-maraprClicking the picture to the left will take you straight to the purchase page for the Mar/Apr 2016 issue of F&SF, where you can find this weeks story “The Ghost Penny Post” by Marc Laidlaw. Unfortunately, the story is not available anywhere online. As far as the issue goes, I enjoyed it–especially the Cat Rambo and Sarina Dorie stories. Today we’re going to be talking about how to set the scene in historical fiction, using this story set in Early Modern England. 

The Challenge:

Setting is a tough thing sometimes: how do you clue readers in to past or future without slowing down the narrative, short of doing something obvious like giving the story a particular date or year stamp? In looking to write a few historical fictions myself, I asked this question and turned to Laidlow’s story for a detailed answer. 

The Story:

“The Ghost Penny Post” is a fun and vivid story, especially in the fairy tale moments. It includes an interesting main POV–an old-timey postal inspector looking into a mysterious mail problem. It takes the form of a mystery, mostly, but also descends into a Wonderland-like absurdity. Also, it’s a multi-pov story with narrators who range in age, profession, and their position on the conflict. Of course, we’re most interested here in how the story sets the scene for all this to occur, and it turns out it’s fairly simple. 

The Solution:

Here’s the first paragraph: “I hope London’s trust in me is not misplaced, thought Hewell as he sought his valise under roadside ferns. He spotted the leather case, still buckled, its sheaf of papers safe. Drawing it from among the fronds, he climbed out of the ditch to stand beside the carriage. Always fond of a good puzzle, Hewell was none too keen on mysteries; but events of the morning suggested more of the latter than the former were in store for his afternoon” (7).

While also kickstarting the key internal struggle, there are a few ways that this paragraph lands us in the correct(ish) era. I’ll start from the simplest and go forward from there. 

  1. Technology: Mentioning travel by horse-drawn carriage is a quick short hand for “this happened a long time ago” and strikes me as practically useful but also widely overutilized. In this instance though, it’s doing it’s job, in combination with a couple of other things. 
  2. Syntax: A more formal, grander syntax seems to be doing some work in this story (whether or not texts actually written in that era show this kind of syntax is up for some debate, based on my readings, and it can certainly go too far if you don’t keep it tightly controlled). In this first paragraph there are a few (certainly at higher density than much of the story). First, “events of the morning.” Then “none too keen” and “suggested more of the latter than the former.” This kind of syntax is almost academic, and is used selectively throughout the story. 
  3. Vocabulary: This technique is used incredibly well in just this one paragraph. The basic form is simply to use old nouns (i.e. “valise”) but I’ve always wondered how to get away with using nouns that readers might not recognize. Even when I read this first sentence, I wondered “What is a valise?” and I bounced off of that a little. What has not occurred to me before is the ability to “translate” those nouns, and if you look in the second sentence, you’ll see it there: “He spotted the leather case…” To me, that was an interesting discovery, but also if you look deeper, Laidlow also translates a word back, from a modern to an early modern word: Sentence one’s “roadside ferns” become, in the third sentence, “fronds.” These three sentences are forming a feedback loop of sorts that state “This is in olden times!” And that really impressed me. 

These three techniques are working quite elegantly, and subtly, to set the scene in the story. They also happen to be highly-usable practical moves. I plan on snapping it up as soon as I can. 

Finally: 

Perhaps ultimately, the answer to my original question was fairly simple. Old language will set a scene in olden times, but it’s also important to do part of the work. This practical example really worked for me to figure this out, though, and now I’ve got to go find all my other historical fiction stories, and see if they’re making similar moves! 

Thanks for reading! What do you think? Any favorite methods for setting the scene in historical fiction or even in far future science fiction? Any recommendations for historical fiction I should be checking out on my journey to writing it?