Friday, September 10, 2010

Something to Talk About

I've been rereading Suzanne Collins' Catching Fire to remind myself of the story before launching into my copy of Mockingjay, which sits on my nightstand, so very blue. I imagine that blueness represents its emotional state as I neglect it.

"Why won't you read me? Don't you love me? Haven't you eagerly waited a whole year for my arrival? And now you just let me sit?"

Sorry, Mockingjay. I heard you're good, but not that good. All my smart friends say so. And I don't want to jump in and ask myself, "Tell me again, why is she standing on ashes where her house used to be?" Because my memory is so bad, that's what I did with your first paragraph. You'll just have to wait.

I am glad I'm rereading Catching Fire, because I think I may have found an answer to my dialogue dilemma.

When Katniss encounters the two ladies from district eight, she asks them what happened. In response, Collins forgoes dialogue structure and jumps straight into narrative exposition.

It's great. It's brilliant. It works.

In a great post about dialogue, Nathan Bransford says you should not include information in dialogue that both parties already know. Someone recently told me this is called maid-and-butler dialogue. Nathan says, "Exposition and dialogue only really mesh when one character genuinely doesn't know what the other character is telling them and it's natural for them to explain at the moment they're explaining it."

I have dialogue like this. One character genuinely doesn't know, and the moment feels right. My problem is the kind of problem I see sometimes in Orson Scott Card novels. The information being fed to the other character (and the reader) is complicated enough that all the reader's brain cells focus on digesting what is being said, and leaves no brain cells left to remember who is saying it, in what setting. It reminds me of the movie Inception, only in a bad way. It's a story in a story, and you need two thirds of a movie to set up that kind of complicating layering.

I recently read Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. On of the hard parts of that novel is how everything after about page sixty is a character talking. Everything. So the reader never forgets the narrator is currently on a ship relating his tale, the whole thing is bracketed by quotes on every page. It feels unnecessarily complicated to me. Why not just tell the story directly to the reader instead of having the reader overhear the character telling the story to his friend? Wasted brain effort, in my opinion.

Collins circumvented the problem by cutting to the chase and relaying district eight's story directly to the reader. I didn't have to imagine Twill and Bonnie as they sat in the snow AND that factory exploding simultaneously. How kind of Suzanne to give my poor reader brain a break like that. Maybe I should pass that break on to my readers.

I think switching to narrative for exposition won't work if the emotional reaction of the other character is crucial or even really interesting. But by the time Katniss had an important reaction to the story, Collins had switched back to dialogue.

How do you decide where crucial information goes? When do you put it in dialogue and when does it belong in a direct narrative?


  1. I use dialogue to show personality and relate evocative information. But, not if I'm rehashing what just happened. For example, if a third party enters the room after two characters just discussed something, and says "What's going on?" I switch to exposition.

    And on the rare occasions I have to relate some historical information, I usually switch to exposition. Just like you, I don't like to work too hard as a reader to figure out what's being said and who's saying it.

    Great post, and great inspiration!

    - Liz

  2. I've never been able to put into words why I can't remember who said what, but your explanation makes total sense. Having a character launch into unnecessary explanations is a great way to lose your reader. Thanks for sharing!

  3. A couple of my recent chapters have a lot of "talking heads" sequences, which confused both the reader (thanks, Jessica) and me. Liz gave me the link to this post and I've found it informative and enlightening.

    I love dialogue; it's my meat and drink. But I'm learning how to use it properly.

    BTW: Catching Fire is next on my reading list.

  4. Glad this helped, James. Isn't Liz great like that? Catching Fire is also great. When you read it, you'll find that particular scene starting at the bottom of page 143.