Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Dialogue in the short story: Top Tips for Forward Assist

After our great session last with ex-military writers from the Forward Assist organisation,  I am looking forward to working alongside Avril Joy  this afternoon in our second workshop.

Today we will be focusing on how to build a character in one's fiction.  

This reminded me of a piece I wrote for my blog  about dialogue and how it works in building character. I'll be sharing it with the writers this afternoon but I thought you also might be interested in it. 

'...As I worked my short story collection called Forms of Flight  I reflected on the crossover skills between the long and short writing forms. One aspect of this reflection was the role of  dialogue in fiction.

Dialogue is hot and hard and it challenges the reader not just to imagine, but to hear different voices, It allows us to witness aggression, seduction, passion and anger and the nature of relationships without having to be told that this is happening. What is happening hits you in the face.·      Dialogue has its part to play on both long and short fiction. It presents very common problem for new short story writers and novelists 

Look at the following writers. What do you witness happening here?

Look at  Why Don’t You Dance? by Raymond Carver  and observe  his ability to imply risk and jeopardy through what seems like simple dialogue.

…He sat down on the sofa to watch. He lit a cigarette, looked around, flipped the match in the grass.
The girl sat on the bed. She pushed off her shoes and lay back. She thought she could see a star. ‘Come here, Jack. Try this bed. Bring one of those pillows.’ she said.
'How is it? ‘he said.
'Try it' she said.
He looked around. The house was dark. 'I feel funny,' he said.  'Better see if anyone’s home.'
She bounced on the bed. ‘Try it first,' she said...

Or look at Daphne du Maurier’s Don’t Look Now 
where she uses dialogue to set the tone of mystery, threat and personal grief near the beginning of the short story. . 

…‘They’re not old girls at all,’ she said. ‘They’re male twins in drag.’ Her voice broke ominously, the prelude to uncontrolled laughter, and John quickly poured some more Chianti into her glass.
        ‘Pretend to choke,’ he said, ’then they won’t notice. You know what it is – they’re criminals doing the sights of Europe, changing sex at each stage. Twin sisters here in Torcello. Twin brothers tomorrow in Venice, parading arm in arm across the Piazza San Marco. Just a matter of switching roles and wigs.’
         ‘Jewel thieves or murderers?’ asked Laura
          ‘Oh murderers definitely. But why, I ask myself, have they picked on me?’
           The waiter made a diversion by bringing coffee and bearing away the fruit, which gave Laura time to banish hysteria and regain control. …

In my story Sharpening Pencils I use dialogue to show the uncomfortable contact between a shy girl and her equally shy tutor. I think.

...The girl stood back from the painting and surveyed it. Mrs Forrest came to stand beside her. She said. ‘I do like the way you manage to convey both humanity and abstraction, Miss Wintersgill. You hold onto the intimate relationship while making the meaning universal.’
The girl undid and redid her ponytail, filling the air again with the smell of turpentine. Mrs Forrest contemplated the thought of turpentine infusing the curly tumbling hair. Then she said. ‘I can indeed draw quite well. They told me so at the Slade, many years ago.’
‘You were at the Slade?’ 
Mrs Forrest laughed. ‘So I was. As I say, it was many years ago. I worked alongside people who now are what thy call household names.’
The girl coughed. ‘It must have been hard work there.’
Mrs Forrest noticed the accent for the first time. Somewhere from the West perhaps. She lifted her shoulders and sighed. ‘For the first year all I did, dear, was sharpen pencils, clear workspaces. I did draw at night. That eventually earned me my place. My night drawing earned me a place there.’ She paused. ‘Not that I was very good.’
‘It’s hard to think of you just sharpening pencils, Mrs Forrest.’
Mrs Forrest smiled showing discoloured teeth. ‘Of course I watched what they did and in my little room at night I tried it all out myself.’ She looked around. ‘Just as, perhaps, you do here, Miss Wintersgill, in the dark of night. But then you are so much more original.’ She backed away then, fading out of the room and closing the heavy door behind her with a click. Outside she untied Koppy and let him run through the darkened parkland around the house, barking now and then when he scented prey... 

And in this story, The Little Bee,  I have tried  to show the world of a little girl observing the complex and ambiguous world around her. Clearly here I am unable to resist contextualising the dialogue in the larger narrative. But perhaps there is room for that in the wide world of the short story, I hope so.

... Amalie put a hand on my shoulder and I stood up before her. ‘And your Mama was very beautiful, ma p’tite. I knew about that. Hadn’t I been her dresser in the Theatre de Varietés? The sheer beauty of your mama drew great applause.’
My father giggled then. ‘But unfortunately she could never remember a line. Not a single line. The manager who had been intoxicated with her became embarrassed and employed beauties with more brain and better memories. Her friend Josephine was one of these.’
Amalie suddenly scowled at him. ‘But after all when you met her, Monsieur, you fell in love.’
He sighed very deeply. ‘So I did, Amalie. So I did.’ And with this he laid his head on the stout oak table and fell asleep, snoring and snuffling within minutes.
My gaze met Amalie’s and - both embarrassed and amused - we started to laugh. She hugged me tight and I could smell the meat and garlic on her. And my father’s fruity cigarettes. Still laughing, I helped Amalie to trundle the trolley through to the dark back places of the house, where her two nieces, who couldn’t speak French at all, washed the pots and dishes and cleared the kitchen for the following day.

As always you should make your own judgement about what would work for you.

And have a go at these practices:
- Abstract some dialogue from an existing short story – separate it on a page – and decide what you are doing here. Can you cut it back to just what is spoken? Can you implant more meaning, enhance the tone, and expose the difference in the way people speak by what they say?

- Take a one line encounter from your story  and render it into dialogue which gives us more of the different lives of the speakers without telling us facts.

- Take an overheard fragment of the conversation of strangers 
and create a whole incident though invented dialogue



Happy writing!


Thursday, 7 January 2016

From My Blue Notebook: The Danish Girl, Adam and Eve and the psychology of Gender.

 Having been in deep hibernation-mode for the last month I feel I must be waking up, as I am sitting here writing my first post for  a whole month. Perhaps it was yesterday morning’s battle to reduce our brilliant tree into branches and overflowing carrier bags that cleared the air for me.

Halleyluya for 2016. That’s what I say!

Lester Ralph's illustration  for the fist volume edition
of  Mark Twain's Eve's Diary 

One Christmas treat for me was a trip to the movies to see the currently trendy Danish Girl. Since then, in this house the subject of the complexities and ambiguities of gender identity has joined in with - cooking-with-deep-flavour, the scientific Periodic Table,  the Labour-non shuffle, the flooding of Great Britain and the Christmas  council’s cock-up of the collection of the black and green bins - as a recurring subject of conversation. I suppose  all this is about being a woman.  

Speaking of which, looking through my Blue Notebook on
The Blue Notebook
New Year’s Day, I came across notes I made when re-reading my favourite very-wise Ursula le Guin talking about Mark Twain’s witty take on the legend of Adam and Eve.

Le Guin, in her beautifully written evaluation, reveals the elements in Mark Twain’s tale that has resonances in our lives today and our concerns regarding the gender roles.

Ursula comments: ‘(in Mark Twain’s Tale ).. It is not
Adam’s superior psychology of brains or brawn but his blockish stupidity. He does not notice, does not listen. Is uninterested, indifferent, dumb. He will not relate to her, she must relate herself in words and actions to him and relate him to the rest of Eden. He is entirely satisfied with himself as he is; she must adapt her ways to him. He is immovably fixed at the centre of his own attention. To stay with him she must agree to be peripheral to him, contingent, secondary. The degree of social and psychological truth in the picture of life in Eden is pretty considerable...’

The Danish Girl is brilliantly acted and beautifully shot and takes a sensitive and nuanced approach on the tragic, true story on which it is based.  

Later, as I watched the press and on the screen the hard-line opinions of proponents and opponents of the transgender agenda my mind leapt back to Ursula’s conclusions about about Adam and Eve.  He is entirely satisfied with himself as he is; she must adapt her ways to him. He is immovably fixed at the centre of his own attention.

Interestingly we would need a new pronoun to make this statement apply to one rather beautiful, highly articulate transgender person (who objected to being certificated at her birth as a girl) sitting there in the studio.

Ursula, I think, would have smiled, alongside Mark Twain.

The Book

To read, perhaps?

The Wave in the Mind by Ursula K Le Guin (2004)
The Diaries of Adam and Eve by Mark Twain 

New Edition 2015
The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff


And the Film 


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