Doin’ It in Style

Dialogue, I’m starting to feel, is one of the less interesting things that can happen in a work of fiction. As I re-edit my novel, I’m finding, first, that it’s rather dialogue-heavy, and second, that I’m getting bored.

If I’m bored, there’s a good chance readers will be too. So I started thinking about ways to make it a more absorbing or scintillating read. I’ve always known that my prose fiction is, let’s say, proficient but workmanlike. Once in a while I happen to toss off a lovely sentence, but I’ve never searched for those sentences. If one occurs to me, fine. If not, I’ll just slog on through the dialogue or whatever. (I do write fairly good dialogue. But still….)

I went down to the local library and borrowed me a stack of literature. I already have a certain amount on my shelves (Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway), but my collection is very spotty.

Of the things I’ve looked at, Fitzgerald seems consistently closest to what I’d like to aim at stylistically. His stories, not so much; The Great Gatsby is about idle rich people living on Long Island a hundred years ago, and who cares, really? But the prose! Here’s a quick example. Daisy and Gatsby have just found one another after a separation of some years, and Daisy is now getting a tour of Gatsby’s mansion (the “feudal silhouette” below):

With enchanting murmurs Daisy admired this aspect or that of the feudal silhouette against the sky, admired the gardens, the sparkling odor of jonquils and the frothy odor of hawthorn and plum blossoms and the pale gold odor of kiss-me-at-the-gate.

Who else would think to describe odors as sparkling, frothy, or pale gold? That’s Fitzgerald. Kiss-me-at-the-gate is, by the way, a type of honeysuckle. Fitzgerald clearly means the reader to understand this as a not even faintly subtle reference to the re-emergence of the broken romance between Gatsby and Daisy. He’s messing with us, because he can.

Faulkner’s prose is less flowery, but often extraordinary. What scares me about reading Faulkner is that I might start writing in the hillbilly dialect of his characters. I dipped into Virginia Woolf’s The Waves and found it beautiful but impenetrable, like an overgrown hothouse strangled in orchids.

At the library I also picked up Iron Council by China Mieville. I’d hazard a guess that Mieville is trying to show off his mastery of style, but his prose is impacted. It’s as hard to untangle as Woolf’s in The Waves, but because he’s writing plotted fiction, at least nominally, the reader is at a disadvantage. And of course Mieville is not aiming at beauty. Here’s the first paragraph of Iron Council:

In years gone, women and men are cutting a line across the dirtland and dragging history with them. They are still, with fight-shouts setting their mouths. They are in rough and trenches of rock, in forests, in scrub, brick shadows. They are always coming.

What does “dragging history with them” even mean? And the grammar — “rough” is an adjective (unless you’re on the golf course, which doesn’t seem to be the setting here), but “trenches” is a noun, so how can those two words be placed in a parallel construction? No, Mieville doesn’t provide a model for the stylistic mastery I’m hoping to learn.

One thing I’ve quickly learned is that the rules being peddled today to young writers of genre fiction are, to a not inconsiderable extent, twaddle. Consider “head-hopping.” We’re told in no uncertain terms, by any number of authorities, that a given scene should be seen strictly from the point of view of one character. If one feels a need to switch to a different viewpoint character, one must leave a blank line and begin a new scene.

But here’s Somerset Maugham, in a story called “Rain.” The main character in this story is Dr. Macphail, and we see most of it from his point of view. Yet suddenly, in a scene where Macphail and his wife are talking to Mrs. Davidson, a thoroughly obnoxious Christian missionary, we get this:

She [Mrs. Davidson] looked from Macphail to his wife, standing helplessly in different parts of the room, like lost souls, and she pursed her lips. She saw that she must take them in hand. Feckless people like that made her impatient, but her hands itched to put everything in the order which came so naturally to her.

After a paragraph of unbroken dialogue that could be heard from any point of view, suddenly we’re back in Macphail’s POV again. Apparently Maugham never got the memo on head-hopping.

Neither did Virginia Woolf. On page 1 of Mrs. Dalloway, we’re clearly in Clarissa Dalloway’s point of view. We hear her thoughts as she sets out on a walk through London to buy some flowers. But at the top of page 2:

She stiffened a little on the kerb, waiting for Durtnall’s van to pass. A charming woman, Scrope Purvis thought her (knowing her as one does know people who live next door to one in Westminster); a touch of the bird about her, of the jay, blue-green, light, vivacious, though she was over fifty, and grown very white since her illness. There she perched, never seeing him, waiting to cross, very upright.

We’re in Purvis’s head — and then he’s gone. In the next paragraph we’re firmly back in Clarissa Dalloway’s POV. We can infer, if we like, that Purvis is driving the van, although it’s a bit odd that a van driver would be living next door to the Dalloways. But that’s neither here nor there. The point is, Woolf needed to give the reader a view of Mrs. Dalloway from the outside, to establish her character and appearance, so she did what was needed.

Of course, you have to be a fine writer to pull off this kind of effect. The novice is well advised to learn the rules first — and then set them aside.

There’s a Zen story about an apprentice to a famous painter. The apprentice said, “Please, master — tell me how to paint the perfect painting!” The master replied, “Oh, that’s easy. Just become perfect, and then paint naturally.”

Once you know how to write, not perfectly (because nobody writes perfectly) but very well, you can set aside the rules and just write naturally.

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