Posts Tagged ‘believable dialogue’

Epistolary Novels–Some Drawbacks

Thursday, April 1st, 2010

San José, by Denis SalasNovelists constantly strive to present well-rounded characters and believable plots, and this struggle often begins with the selection of a narrative style. Should the author tell the story from the point of view of one character or of several? Should the story begin in the present and reveal important details in flashback? Should the reader learn of events as they happen or only hear about them through a character’s retelling?

One particular narrative choice, the epistolary form, has been popular for centuries–in novels like Pamela and Dracula–and seems to make a resurgence periodically–in books like Griffin and Sabine and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Writers like the fact that the epistolary form allows letters or other kinds of text to drive both plot and character development. When properly executed, an exchange of letters between characters–or a dramatic series of newspaper articles or diary entries–can create a compelling plot and sufficient characterization to keep the reader interested in the story. However, I argue that the epistolary form presents its own problems, both in terms of realism and in terms of immediacy.

The problem of realism lies in the fact that the epistolary form often requires letter-writing characters to reveal information for the sake of the reader, rather than for the sake of their own correspondence, creating unrealistic content in the letters. For example, in writing to her beloved sister, a character might say, “Thank you for the birthday present you sent me! How did you know that a hand-sewn tablecloth with red and green embroidery and yellow lace trim was exactly what I wanted for my forty-eighth birthday?” The details about the tablecloth and the letter-writer’s age exist solely for the benefit of the reader, since one assumes that the beloved sister knows exactly what she sent and exactly how old her sister is. Epistolary novels lend themselves to these sorts of problems with realism when the correspondents know more about each other than the reader knows about them. In an effort to convey information to the reader, the author of the novel puts far more information into a letter than it would otherwise have: “Dear Husband, As a nurse, I am deeply disturbed by the outbreak of cholera. Love, your wife.” One assumes that the husband knows his wife’s occupation, and in a “real” letter, his wife would never need to mention her line of work.

The problem of immediacy is one that presents itself frequently in epistolary novels. The beauty of the epistolary novel is that its characters can exchange profound, personality-defining thoughts while hinting at the action happening around them as they communicate. However, when the action needs to be more immediate–a battle scene or a violently explosive confrontation, for example–a letter describing the action might create too much distance from the reader. Compare, for example, a character’s personal account of a mugging with a letter about that same mugging. (“Charles stepped into the dark alley and knew immediately he shouldn’t have taken the shortcut. A man emerged from the darkness. He held a knife.” or “Dear Susan, I was mugged last night. I decided to take a shortcut home, but the minute I stepped in the alley, I knew I had made the wrong decision.”) The epistolary form keeps the reader at arm’s length, a distance that might not be suitable for describing fast-paced action.

I suggest that an author consider the shortcomings of the epistolary form before choosing it for his or her own novel. If the letter-writing characters know a great deal about one another, does it make sense for them to write each other exhaustively detailed letters that serve mostly to convey information to the reader? If the novel is to have immediate and jarring action, would it be more exciting for the characters to experience the action right before the very eyes of the reader, so to speak, or will the reader be satisfied to read about the action, secondhand, in a letter or newspaper article?

As always, Beaumont Hardy is a writer’s friend in times of narrative indecision. Send me your written work, your writing thoughts and your narrative concerns, and I will be happy to provide editorial guidance.

Creating Believable Dialogue

Monday, March 23rd, 2009

flowersAt Beaumont Hardy Editing, I am particularly interested in dialogue, as it can significantly add to—or detract from—a well-plotted story. When I edit dialogue, I  examine whether it works the way conversation does in real life—whether characters say what their real-life counterparts would and whether the author relies too much on dialogue to convey information. In general, realistic dialogue doesn’t convey as much information as straight narrative would, so using dialogue to provide the reader with facts can be somewhat tricky.

The following is a passage of dialogue in its unedited form. Below the unedited version is my edit of the same text. My editorial comments are at the bottom of this post.

Margaret sat at the table next to her brother. “It’s so good to see you again, Adam,” she beamed. “It’s been too long. Ever since you took that job as a pediatric heart surgeon in San Diego, I only get to see you at Thanksgiving. If it wasn’t for that awards ceremony you invited me to last month, I wouldn’t have seen you in ages. And to think that my little brother is the recipient of such a big award!” Margaret turned to grin at her mother, who passed her the basket of hot rolls.
“Now, Margaret,” her mother admonished. “Leave your brother alone.”
“Yes,” said her father. “As a lawyer, you know you’re just as busy as he is.”
“But being a defense attorney does give me some time to see my family,” argued Margaret.
“You mean a top-notch defense attorney,” laughed Adam. “You became partner faster than anyone else at your law firm, Birch, Birch and Beene.”
“Well, I do work hard,” Margaret smiled. “And I love my work. In fact, if I didn’t have my work, I don’t know what I’d do.”
“How about you, Mother?” queried Adam. “How are things at Midvale Volunteer Center? Are you still struggling with too many deserving children, too small a staff and a shoestring budget?”
“Yes, Adam,” groaned his mother. “I’ve been at that volunteer center for twenty years, and it’s always the same. There’s so much we want to do, and there are so many deserving children. But it’s hard, because, as you say, we’re constantly underfunded.”
“But we’re happy you two are here,” said their father. “Now, let’s start eating before all of this food gets cold.”

Here is the passage in its edited form:

Margaret sat at the table next to her brother. “It’s so good to see you again, Adam,” she said. “It’s been too long. Ever since you moved to San Diego, I hardly ever get to see you. If it wasn’t for that awards thing last month, I wouldn’t have seen you in ages. And to think that my little brother would win such a big award!” Margaret turned to grin at her mother, who passed her the basket of hot rolls.
“Now, Margaret,” her mother admonished, “leave your brother alone.”
“Yes,” said her father. “You know you’re just as busy as he is.”
“But my job gives me some time to see my family,” said Margaret.
“You mean your top-notch lawyer job?” laughed Adam. “You became partner faster than anyone else at your firm.”
“Well, I do work hard,” Margaret smiled. “And I love my work. In fact, if I didn’t have my work, I don’t know what I’d do.”
“How about you, Mother?” asked Adam. “How are things at the volunteer center? Are you still struggling with too many children and too little money?”
“Yes, Adam,” said his mother. “I’ve been at Midvale for twenty years, and it’s always the same. There’s so much we want to do, and there are so many deserving children. But it’s hard, because, as you say, we’re constantly underfunded.”
“But we’re happy you two are here,” said their father. “Now, let’s start eating before all of this food gets cold.”

Here is the passage with my editing marks visible. My comments to the author are in brackets and italicized. The portions I cut appear with a strike-through, and the portions I added are underlined. (In a normal Word document with “Track Changes,” my editing marks are in red, and my comments are in their own separate section, not inserted into the text.)

Margaret sat at the table next to her brother. “It’s so good to see you again, Adam,” she beamedsaid. [In general, I think “said” works best for dialogue. Many authors use colorful verbs, like “muttered” or “whinged,” but these verbs are often too much of a distraction. You might even cut “she said” altogether, since it is sufficiently clear that Margaret is speaking.] “It’s been too long. Ever since you took that job as a pediatric heart surgeon in[Although “took that job as a pediatric heart surgeon” adds important background information about Adam, it seems unlikely that Margaret would actually mention Adam’s specific position. After all, they both know what he does. It seems more likely that Margaret would just refer to the fact that Adam has moved.] to San Diego, I only hardly ever get to see you at Thanksgiving. [Once again, both Margaret and Adam probably know that they only see each other at Thanksgiving, so it might be unnecessary for Margaret to mention it.] If it wasn’t for that awards ceremony you invited me to thing last month, [I changed “ceremony” to “thing” so that Margaret’s speech would sound more colloquial.] I wouldn’t have seen you in ages. And to think that my little brother is the recipient of would win such a big award! [I changed “is the recipient of” to “would win” to, once again, make Margaret’s speech more colloquial.]” Margaret turned to grin at her mother, who passed her the basket of hot rolls.
“Now, Margaret,” her mother admonished,.lLeave your brother alone.”
“Yes,” said her father. “As a lawyer, [“As a lawyer” is unnecessary. Both Margaret and her father know that she is a lawyer. The reader might not yet know, but there are other ways to convey this information to the reader. If Margaret is the main character, it will soon become very clear to the reader that Margaret is lawyer.] Yyou know you’re just as busy as he is.”
“But my job being a defense attorney does gives [Once again, Margaret probably wouldn’t mention her specific job. I also changed “does give” to “gives,” as it seemed more colloquial.] me some time to see my family,” saidargued [“Said” is sufficient here, because the reader can tell that Margaret and her father are engaged in a good-natured argument.] Margaret.
“You mean youra top-notch lawyer job?defense attorney,” laughed Adam. “You became partner faster than anyone else at your law firm, Birch, Birch and Beene.” [I tried to make Adam’s comment a little more conversational and lighthearted. He can indicate to the reader that Margaret is a very good lawyer, although he probably would not mention the exact name of her law firm. One would assume that everyone in the family already knows its name.]
“Well, I do work hard,” Margaret smiled. “And I love my work. In fact, if I didn’t have my work, I don’t know what I’d do.”
“How about you, Mother?” askedqueried [“Queried” is one of those verbs that might be a little too colorful.] Adam. “How are things at theMidvale vVolunteer cCenter? [Adam probably wouldn’t use the name of the center when talking to his mother, although he might call it “Midvale.”] Are you still struggling with too many deserving children and too little money, too small a staff and a shoestring budget?” [I shortened Adam’s question, because it seemed unlikely that he would put so much information into it when talking to his mother. They have obviously talked about this subject previously, so he wouldn’t need to convey so much detail to her.]
“Yes, Adam,” saidgroaned [Although the volunteer center is a subject close to the mother’s heart, it seems unlikely that she would be so affected by the conversation that she would actually groan.] his mother. “I’ve been at Midvalethat volunteer center [This might be a good place for the reader to learn the name of the center. But is it necessary for the reader to learn its name? Perhaps the mother could just call it “the center” if it isn’t going to play a big role in the rest of the story.] for twenty years, and it’s always the same. There’s so much we want to do, and there are so many deserving children. But it’s hard, because, as you say, we’re constantly underfunded.”
“But we’re happy you two are here,” said their father. “Now, let’s start eating before all of this food gets cold.”

[Please send me your comments about this Sample Edit. To submit your own work for a free edit–and inclusion in a posting on this blog–please write to me at jane@beaumonthardy.com.]