Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Day 7 - Starting a Novel with Disembodied Dialog

I have a confession to make. I was never able to get into Dorothy L. Sayers. I never knew why, because I love the adaptations made of her Lord Peter Whimsey books. The plots, the characters all that.

I finally realized just the other night that the whole reason is because I've been trying to start with the wrong book. And it's not even the wrong whole book, just the wrong first page. Yep, I've got to say that Murder Must Advertise has a sinker of a first page:

"And by the way," said Mr. Hankin, arresting Miss Rossiter as she rose to go, "there is a new copy-writer coming in today."

"Oh, yes, Mr. Hankin?"

"His name is Bredon. I can't tell you much about him; Mr Pym engaged him himself; but you will see that he is looked after."

"Yes, Mr. Hankin."

"He will have Mr. Dean's room."

"Yes, Mr. Hankin."

"I should think that Mr. Ingleby cold take him in hand and show him what to do. You might send Mr. Ingleby along if he can spare me a moment."

"Yes, Mr. Hankin."

"That's all. And, oh, yes! Ask Mr. Smayle to let me have the Dairyfield's guard-book."

"Yes, mr. Hankin."

This is a much better beginning than the one in the book I threw across the room the other day, because at least it does its job of orienting us. It's pretty clear that this is an office, and the relationship between the characters. Given the title of the chapter "Death Comes to Pym's Publicity", we have some kind of idea what kind of office it is, too.

But it does make you work to figure out that setting, and what is going on and why, and it doesn't give back a lot in return. For instance, since we don't have any expectations yet, it doesn't get to play with or against those expectations. Which is what would make the whole "Yes, Mr. Hankin, Yes, Mr. Hankin, Yes, Mr. Hankin, Yes, Mr. ..." thing work. If we had actors and and a setting, it would be funny and subtle. By itself, the words have to work too hard to set the scene and set up the relationship. There isn't time for fun with it. Still, there might be just a little drama in there if he had said something which made her struggle to answer "Yes, Mr. Hankin." But that wouldn't be appropriate to the characters.

So, imho, it would have been better to cut it out altogether, because ALL of the information in this bit turns out to be in the next part of the scene when Miss Rossiter goes off and relates it all to the other people in the office. And Sayers deigns to actually describe them a little, and better yet, they actually have personalities and conflicts.

And in that bit, a page later, we finally get a hint of the "promise" that should have been on the first page, when one of the characters describes this new guy as a "tow-coloured supercilious looking blighter" and now we have some anticipation. If you're familiar with the series, here you think, with a chuckle "Is that who I think it is?" Or if you aren't, you at least get a sense of upcoming conflict.

Usually, dialog carries a lot of meaning in how things are said. But when you have nothing but dialog , what is said is extremely important. In an opening, it becomes a kind of narration in itself. The characters can tell you about other characters the way Dickens told us about Scrooge - but if so, it's better not to make the dialog carry too much other weight. It can't establish the characters who are speaking, AND the setting, AND the political situation, AND the other characters.

In Murder, Mr. Mosley by John Greenwood, the opening dialog is like the chanting of a Greek chorus. We meet a couple of minor characters in an obvious setting but they are there to comment:

"You are not contemplating," the Assistant Chief Constable said, "committing this to Mosley?"

Detective-Superintendant Grimshaw looked his master in the eye with a firmness meant to conceal the fact that he would rather have been looking almost anywhere else in the world. "Chief Inspector Marsters is tied up with managerial crime -- the Hartley Mason business. We've leave and sickness problems. Woolliams is looking after two divisions. Stout's going off on a course. And it is Mosley's patch."

"But damn it, he couldn't even get to the scene of the crime."

"He's been up all night sir: an epidemic of poultry-rustling over at Kettlerake."

This scene goes on for about another page and it is all dialog. Not even a "he said" for the rest of the scene. But you don't have to work all that hard to know it's taking place in the ACC's office, and if not, the location is irrelevant to the conversation.

But the best thing is that the very first sentence introduces conflict. It's a question in the negative, full of doubt. And Grimshaw's reaction shows us that he is dreading that doubt and has to stand strong against it.

From there, the discussion progresses like a tennis match, with the ball in one court and then the other. And in the course of the conversation, we learn all there is to know about the reputation of Mr. Mosley, and about his "patch" or the community in which he works. This conversation continues to build that conflict, and by the end, it has built up to a hook - Mosley is about to be partnered with someone that both sides believe will a poor fit for his personality. ... And that is a perfect set up to actually meet Mr. Mosley in the next scene.

So in the end, I have to say that the disembodied discussion can work as an opening scene, but what it really does is focus the reader on the subject of the discussion. And if you try to hang too much else on these words (or make the point too subtle) you can lost the audience.  At the opening of the story, subtlety gets lost in the reader's search for information.  If you want to write wonderful subtle dialog, save it for a little later, when the audience can absorb it. 

So tomorrow I get back to thinking about what to do with this book, and my goals for the next dare (which I will post on New Year's Day).
Here are the direct links to each post in the series: Intro - how to start a novel badly 1.) In the middle of the action, 2.) Narration or storyteller's voice, 3.) Disembodied Dialog.

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