The Ordinary Peeks Through

Many high concepts provide readers with a way to explore hot-button issues behind the headlines. This attribute of a novel resembles the vastly greater amount you can learn about a country from one of its writers as opposed to a travel guide. Only by placing a heroine within a situation can the reader learn up-close what that issue really means in human terms.

In the desire to bring the exotic down to earth, however, a writer runs the risk of making the sentence-by-sentence progress too mundane. I’ll pick a hot topic today, transgender relations, as a running illustration. If teenage Luke has always felt more like a Luca, a reader is intrigued by what he feels inside, the taunting of his classmates, maybe a bitter parent, a search for acceptance, among others. Judged from the outside, before you start any of these threads, the prospect is thrilling.

The journey through a novel, though, proceeds word by word. In the desire to establish a foundation of realism, an author can err on the side of too familiar. A teenage drama can easily veer into immature conversations that echo endless episodes on Nickelodeon. Those screenwriters know how a sixteen-year-old talks, or at least one with an attitude designed to prompt the laugh track.

Insouciance does not work as well in a medium that explores a character’s thoughts. Whether Luke makes the immense jump to become a woman could be, on the contrary, a heart-wrenching decision, for him and those around him. That source of gravity pulls the story up out of any ordinary moorings.

How does a writer avoid the pitfalls of the sitcom while also remaining believable? You use a method I’ll call hyper-realism. This has two primary components. First is your choice of the topics of conversations. If you avoid run-of-the-mill encounters by the school locker, for instance, and instead choose only those truly charged with tension, the dialogue will be elevated by the subject matter alone.

Second is the language spoken during those conversations. It needs to be more pointed, shorn of the usual patter that thinking off the top of your head produces. Once you have written out the dialogue the first time, look severely at the ordinary stretches. If you replace a back-and-forth exchange of six lines with a single narrative sentence, you’ll cut to the chase. The prose overall will match its concept—because you have consciously made it more angular all along.

Exercise: The loop between what is thought and what is said can also be shorter. Indeed, a novel can barely venture outside the protagonist’s thoughts to cover what is said. If you, during a review, encounter long stretches of dialogue, think about how that topic could be placed inside the heroine’s head. Could she subsume an exchange of conflicting views into warring thoughts of her own?

“There are no makeovers in my books. The ugly duckling does not become a beautiful swan. She becomes a confident duck able to take charge of her own life and problems.”
—Maeve Binchy

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

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Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.