Thought About Your Style Lately?

"What did your poor little girls-like-me-can-always-manage have to say?"
Have You Thought About Your Style Lately?

Over at the other blog, St. Corbinian's Bear (who some people - and one Bear - claim is the actual author of Judging Angels) a comment about Walker Percy turned into a discussion of style.

Whether the Bear is right or wrong is not what I want to talk about, though. Far be it from some hack paperback writer to criticize Walker Percy, anyway.

It made me think about my own style for the first time, though. So, I flipped through Judging Angels with that in mind.

I noticed how I tell my story generally from the point of view of a scene's focus character, but usually revealing his state of mind, not what is actually in his mind.

I also noticed how slowly I dribble out exposition, keeping the reader in the dark or even misled. I set up familiar tropes only to defeat expectations. I use that to set the tone and rhythm. It also keeps the reader guessing throughout the entire novel and rewards her with many twists along the way.

Finally, I seem to let dialogue do a lot of the heavy lifting.

So, I thought I would discuss some of these stylistic habits of mine. As always, examples are my own, not because they're the best, but because I'm doing good to remember where to find stuff in my own book, and am too lazy to dig up examples from better writers.

Different Ways of Telling the Story Through the Mind of the Focus Character

Like Walker Percy's Love in the Ruins, much of my story is filtered through the minds of characters. Unlike Love in the Ruins, it is not an interior monologue from a single character. (If I am remembering it correctly, and I didn't finish it either).

I do use some straight-up interior dialogue. But, much of the time, I use a "quasi-interior dialogue" by telling the story of a scene through the focus character's mind, but one narrative step removed. It reveals what the character thinks about certain things that might be called to mind by the circumstances, but is not necessarily what he is actually thinking at that moment.

For example, on page one (yes, I really am that lazy) from the chapter titled "Last Things," the main character is introduced as he is about to cross the street on his way to work. From the outside, there is nothing remarkable about that. The real story is on the inside. So how do you show that this moment is anything but routine?

I could have done it through interior dialogue. "It's a beautiful day to kill somebody, thought George Able as he crossed the street. They say life is full of surprises. Well, today, they would be wrong. We're playing for all the chips and I know the.38 in my pocket is a royal flush." (Or, "George Able crossed the street thinking it was a lovely day for a double homicide. He smiled as he imagined the surprise on their faces...")

But, what I did was to mix a little straight narrative with things that are generally in the focus character's head, but not necessarily his actual stream of consciousness. It communicates his state of mind, not what is going through his mind.
Most people die surprised - at least murder victims, which were his specialty. He had seen it in their eyes. Not wildly surprised, but mildly. Not condemned men, though, and not him. Today held no surprises at all for him. On this very last Christmas Eve, it was George Able who held all the surprises.
He shot his arm from the sleeve of his black wool dress coat, exposing a cheap watch that rattled loosely on his wrist bones. It was unreliable, but today, it did not matter. He had looked at it out of habit. When you ran out of time, that was that. He stepped off the curb.

The reader will very soon know whether George is right about surprises. It sets a menacing tone and raises some intriguing questions about this George Able fellow. In a way, this is also the author's sly warning on page one to readers that, just when they think they've got everything figured out, the primrose path ends in a sudden drop.

Or a screech of tires.

Maybe it is a distinction without a difference, but I think there is a subtle difference that makes it a different read than actual interior dialogue. Maybe I'm wrong and readers will assume he is thinking everything at the time. I'm not sure that matters, if it works. 

Much of the first chapter is in the main character's head, presented indirectly, as illustrated above, and sometimes in sudden intrusive thoughts (that are actual interior dialogue) and scraps of poetry he remembers. The idea is to paint a picture of someone who is on psychologically thin ice beneath the routine hello to the secretary and morning cup of coffee.

He's the kind of man whose neighbors might one day describe on the news as: "a quiet, regular guy."

Exposition as a Slow I.V. Drip and Oblique Storytelling

This is part of my style - now that I am thinking about it - of oblique storytelling. I like to let hints accumulate and save confirmation for a big reveal - or, more typically, head faking a familiar trope, knocking the reader down without catching a foul and slam dunking a big surprise.

Exposition is a slow I.V. drip, not big pills. The reader doesn't need to know everything, and everything he knows doesn't have to be the truth.

I guess I write like a criminal defense trial lawyer. I had to patiently piece together a case over days or weeks through many witnesses. A trial unfolds slowly, and you learn to keep jurors awake as they are spoon-fed the evidence. Often, some testimony does not make sense without something they're not going to get until next week. In theory, a jury does not have a complete grasp of a case until the last witness has taken the stand.

And, I guess I never got over the thrill of gently leading the prosecution's witnesses down the primrose path during cross-examination then springing the surprise killer question. That's the way I remember it, anyway, and, I'm sticking to my story.

Of course, most of my clients were guilty and I did not win many trials. Such is the life. My novels turn out exactly as I wish, however!

What experiences shape your style?

Lots of Dialogue

I notice there's also a lot of dialogue in Judging Angels. Dialogue is a great way to reveal character, fill in background, and generally get exposition in under the radar. Dialogue can also directly present conflict. In a book largely about ideas, dialogue can hash things out, if you've established believably thoughtful and articulate characters.

(There's also smokin' redheads and guns, though. It helps break up the dialogue.)

Of course, the trick is to be sneaky enough to pursue your ulterior motives without the reader suspecting it. Few things are worse than eye-rolling dialogue where people tell each other things they know because the author knows the reader doesn't, but should.
"As you recall," James said, "I have a serious heart condition. In fact, I had to have bypass surgery last month. I almost died, remember? But, I know in my damaged heart that you cared then. You told me you loved me."
"Yes, I remember," said Beatrice. "But after your surgery - and remarkably fast recovery - you were healthy enough to have that affair with the neighbor woman two doors down, Sadie Walters. If I have been cool since I discovered your little love letter to her you were writing and carelessly left on the desk in your study, perhaps I have had my reasons."
A trend I've noticed in television writing is characters making long, suspiciously articulate speeches. The last season of Ripper Street on Netflix was an unholy mess, in my opinion. I don't know how Whitechapel  prostitutes-turned-music-hall-singers actually talked in Victorian London. I suspect it was not in lyrical monologues delivered with neither hesitation nor breath.

I know transcripts of even educated people trying to make a point off the cuff can be an embarrassment to read. (Hmm... lots of dialogue... trial transcripts... Trials are dialogue. I guess something else from the old days.)

As with nearly everything in writing, you probably aren't trying to reproduce the reality of dialogue, but give the impression it is real people speaking.

People start and hesitate. They speak in fragments. They interrupt each other and themselves. They are less than truthful. Sometimes they are unintentionally and painfully truthful. They may backtrack. And, yes, they might throw something in someone's face that they both know, but they would have a reason to.

While a little goes a long way, genuine-sounding dialogue might include some of these characteristics. Dialogue is often where better writers distinguish themselves from those still mastering the basics of their craft.

In this example, a husband and wife are at a restaurant when he gets a text.

***

"Who was that?" Alice asked.

"Who do you think?"

"What did your poor little girls-like-me-can-always-manage have to say?"

"Forever ends today. Frowny face. She said she loved me."

"Can't say I'm surprised. You know she's manipulating you, right?"

"You gave her a phone." I know she looked cold.

"In case we need her, dimwit."

"What?" George had missed the comment of his wife.

"I know you too well. There was more than the text. Let me see."

"I was going to delete it."

"She looks cold," Alice said, handing it back. "She's escalating. That doesn't look like little girl lost to me. More like little girl lost all her clothes. We got ourselves a real bunny boiler."

George put the phone back in his pocket. Alice cleared her throat. He muttered something and pulled his phone out again. He stabbed the screen a couple of times, then held it up for her inspection. 

"Give it."

Alice typed a message, then read it. "Please no more pics like that, you'll catch your death. And send. Here's your phone."

"What do you think the message meant?"

"Sounds like a threat to me. The psycho is probably going to kill me. Or you. Or all of us. That's what I've been saying all along."

"I don't know... in context it sounds like she might be suicidal."

***

If you're a wife reading that, you (I hope) probably want to strangle the husband.

The husband is conflicted and defensive. He misses a comment because he is thinking about the picture. He "forgets" to delete it and worries that whoever sent it might be suicidal. The wife is fed up to the point she does not even explode. She sees a threat so obvious it is hardly worth the time to explain it to her idiot husband.

Two people with very different takes on the same thing, economically showing character, conflict, the state of a marriage, and foreshadowing a threat through a few lines of dialogue.

I don't come right out and tell the reader what's on the phone, either. I let the dialogue do all the work and give the reader credit.

Is the dialogue 100 percent "real?" Maybe Alice's humorous comments are a bit too clever, but these are two smart people, and Alice is snarky, so I hope it doesn't provoke eye-rolling in context. Add "mordant humor" to my style. A lot depends on what you train your reader to expect, which gets back to character depth, which gets back to techniques like quasi-interior dialogue or your own favorite tricks.

And, by the way, I see the last as different from mere "point of view." It probably has a real name, but "quasi-interior dialogue" catches the idea, I think.

Style Summary

So, telling the story generally through the focus character of a scene, but one step back from actual interior dialogue, is a technique I see myself using again and again in Judging Angels. I suppose it is my way of avoiding naked exposition and is a good way of building character depth.

Also, dialogue handles a lot of the heavy lifting. Maybe more than is usual, but I try to keep it sounding true in general and also to whomever is speaking.

I am stingy with information and don't always spell things out. I keep the reader's interest through taking them in unexpected directions. 

Finally, while there is a good dose of horror, the reader is never far from some mordant humor, which lets her know that she's not going to be dumped into some unrelenting nightmare. (I wanted to use "More laughs than The Brothers Karamazov" as a tagline, but my publisher vetoed it.)

Comments

  1. P.S. Yes. The fonts are inconsistent. I think Blogger (Google) is punishing me for using Edge, not Chrome. I suppose I'll have to bow to their will.

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

"The Captain has turned the MODERATION LIGHT on."