So you're writing dialogue, he said this, she said that. The story's emerging nicely. At some point, though, things start to feel too static, overly staged. To break up the speech rhythms you make one of your characters do something while he or she talks. Stand up, sit down, look away, brush a stray tress of hair from his eyes, bite his lip, open her mouth as if to say something, then think better of it. You know the kind of thing.
For sure, often you need do no more than reach for an off-the-peg phrase such as "he ran his hand through his hair, "she flinched", "he stood up" or "her eyes found his". Nothing wrong with these, per se. You'll find bazillions in prize-winning novels. Here's one from Hilary Mantel, perfect in its simplicity:
"Filthy." He sits down. "Weather. People. Manners. Morals."
Even in Mantel's garlanded hands, such generic tags don't amount to more than "INSERT ACTION HERE", and carry little additional energy. Most of the time, we're really writing "Rachel breathed in, and out again", or "Jeff's heart beat, then did it again, repeatedly", or "Dave moved from one place to another". They break up monotonous speech rhythms, but don't do much to deepen your readers' sense of a character's anxieties, foibles and aspirations.
But these "spare" moments actually give us an opportunity to achieve more interesting things. Take a look at this example by Alan Holinghurst. It's from his 2004 Booker prize-winning novel, The Line of Beauty:
... and Nick would say, "She's fine, she's fine," shielding his eyes from the dropping August sun, and smiling back at him with reassurance, among other unguessed emotions.
No missed opportunities here. The description of Nick's action presents a lovely, lyrical moment, far better than any variation on the desperately familiar "running his hand through his hair"/ "lowering his gaze". "Dropping sun" is unsual (and superb), but not so odd it jolts you out of the scene – unlike [INSERT ACTION]s that try too hard (think: "rubbing his cheek with his thumb, and flinching as a flap of skin halfway along the digit's length, made ragged by lifting breeze blocks earlier that day, dug into the delicate skin under his eye").
Holinghurst's [INSERT ACTION] is perfect because the action described is familiar enough that we can imagine it without too much effort, and generic enough that the description gives us space to invest Nick with attributes that mean something to us. Holinghurst hasn't over-described things, he hasn't stipulated the colour of Nick's eyes, the size of his shielding hands, etc. He even seems to pun on the pitfalls waiting for less experienced writers, who would guess at Nick's other emotions .
Here are a few more examples from outstanding writers. One is incredibly simple, one finds an unexpected word to change a familiar action into something striking, one is outrageously showy. All are beautiful:
"I saw," the colonel leers, trying to raise himself up off his perennially festering rear. "Death and damage." He falls back on the cushions.
"Very manly," says Madam Monnard, probing the cat's fur.
"Where is the funny?" my husband says, clicking the remote. "Bring me the funny."
I'll end with an example from my historical crime novel, The Cunning House (2015). Mrs Cooke, landlady of The White Swan tavern, a notorious Regency "molly" house (or gay bar, in today's parlance), is wiping down tables. As she works, she listens to the mysterious Mr Shadworth descanting on the possibility of life on other planets . As you'll see, I've interspersed simple [INSERT ACTION]s (feel free to re-use ...) with one that's more ambitiously lyrical:
“Remember, Mrs Cooke, ‘one’ is no closer to ‘zero’ than it is further from infinity.” He smiled, the perilously thin skin at the corners of his eyes becoming a mass of spiculated folds. “Infinity is all other possible numbers. It might be two, it could just as easily be two-trillion-and-two. It would certainly be a fallacy to take the sign of infinity for infinity itself.”
In my previous post, “Walk through …”, we looked at moving characters from one room to the next. As so often, the best solutions turned out to be the simplest – advice that holds for another situation where we often tie ourselves, and our characters, in knots: “eye dialogue”.
Eyes speak volumes, don’t they? Looks can be meaningful, pained, surprised, hurt, threatening … Sounds easy. But if you’re not careful – or rather, if you’re too careful, and overthink things – the scene can go horribly wrong. Then we’re apt to produce phrases that risk calling attention to themselves, rather than advancing the action, such as: “His eyes’ aerogel, endlessly deep, yet oddly superficial, fascinated her”. Or unintentionally hilarious ones: “He looked at her with his two eyes”. Not thinking enough, though, can find us reproducing depressingly familiar, not to mention unlikely, similies: “Her eyes reminded him of bright saphires" (Where did your character last seen one of those?).
It’s often a good idea not to stray too far from accepted idioms, even if, when we look closely, they actually don't make much sense. As readers, we’re perfectly happy skipping over phrases such as “He held her with his eyes” without worrying about the physics involved. In fact, we accept eyes that are capable of holding people more easily than phrases that work scrupulously to remove the ambiguity ("He fixed her with his eyes" vs “His eyes stared at her in a way that made her feel incapable of movement”).
And just as it’s a good idea to feather out “he said” and “she said” from spoken dialogue, it’s often best to keep “eye dialogue” low key. One way to do that is to exploit prêt-à-porter phrases, which deliver the necessities without drawing attention to themselves.
So, sticking to the maxim “good writers are good readers”, let’s turn to some examples worth emulating (without filching). First up, Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist (2014), where a simple, unembellished eye-phrase is used to signal seriousness:
The woman looks straight into Nella’s eyes. “I am Marin Brandt,” she says, as if Nella should understand. (p. 10)
That's straight talking. Similarly in Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things:
“You really mean that? No shit?” Peter stared him straight in the eyes … (p. 49)
Looking through, or with, a character’s eyes forces us to see a scene as a character sees it, and at their pace. Take this example from Sarah Waters, The Paying Guests (2014):
Looking up at the ceiling, she followed the steps with her eyes.
Eyes can save us from “telling” where we should be “showing”. In All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr all but tells us that Frau Elena is wary, but by communicating this fact through eye dialogue, he gets away with it, and saves himself some time in the process.
Frau Elena watches the boys with wary eyes (p. 42)
Eyes, then, quickly establish the emotional temperature of a scene. Here’s an example from my crime novel, The Cunning House:
He watched the prisoner’s eyes grow round. “You’ve finally committed a crime worthy of your monstrosity. (p. 123)
Such familiar phrases as eyes growing round often work best for eye dialogue. In The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, David Mitchell – a hallmark of whose style is finding inventive ways to avoid cliche – turns in a standard variation on “their eyes meet":
“Excuse me!” The retinue turns round. Miss Aibagawa meets his eyes for a moment. (p. 79)
Mitchell might have said, “she held his eyes with hers”, “her eyes found his”, “she fixed him with her eyes”, or any number of almost interchangeable variants. The point is, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel in such situations, and if we do, we risk jolting the reader out of our fictive world.
Of course, if you do want to go to town with eyes, as it were, you can. Again, from The Cunning House, where the lawyer Wyre tries to imagine the onward flight of a suicide’s bullet:
Lifting his eyes skywards, he allowed himself to imagine for a moment the slug’s flight onwards, beyond the constraints of the footman’s skull, its acute plane over the dovecots, the inevitable parabola, pictured the projectile coming to rest, chinking curiously, next to a flowerpot, where the contrast between its brutal grey and the plant’s living colour briefly detained any servant whose eyes happened to be drawn in that direction by a strange insect, busy at the sticky parts. (p. 4).
Here’s looking at you.
Writing a novel? Welcome to my new series of posts, covering everything from structure and technique to making readers care about your characters. I supervise creative writing PhDs at Aberystwyth University, and in this blog I'll be addressing some of the challenges that often arise – as well as providing solutions
So let's dive straight in. If you've already started your novel, you'll know that things that sound easy often turn out to be unfathomably tricky. What about taking your character from one room to the next – it should be the simplest thing in the world, right? But how often has your hero or heroine made it no further than the first door, before getting profoundly stuck? Detail's usually the problem – how much to provide. Do you mention her fingers reaching for the handle? Should you describe her fingers (slender, stubby, pale)? Does she step around the door? Or through it? (If the latter, hasn’t she just broken several inviolable laws of physics?). Do you need to point out that she’s closed the door behind her? Help!
Here are a few tips for taking your character over the threshold.
Resist the temptation to narrate every stage of mechanical action. Keep things simple, as Michel Faber does in his new novel, The Book of Strange New Things (2014):
He opened the passenger door and joined her inside. (p. 101)
As soon as you mention "door", much of the action associated with it – such as opening or closing it – is implicit. Actually, there’s usually no need to mention doors at all. Here’s Faber again:
Side-by-side they walked out of the building, into the darkness. (p. 100)
For sure, sometimes a door presents an opportunity to establish mood. David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks (2014):
After slamming Vinnie’s door, my feet brought me here. (p. 15)
In general, though, consider treating entrances and exits through doors like you would "he said" and "she said" – they shouldn’t draw attention to themselves. Here’s a good example from Stephen King’s Under the Dome (2009):
Ginny held the door for him. (p. 673)
Having said all that, you may wish to break your own rules, and perform a stylish pirouette at the threshold. Here’s one from my historical crime novel, The Cunning House (2015):
She strode to the door, her hand obscenely small as it closed around the handle. (p. 130)
I’ll end with another example from The Cunning House, to illustrate how doors offer good vantage points for observing other characters. The viewpoint is Junior Prosecutor Wyre’s:_
Miss Crawford merely nodded, stepping out of her doorway as she was, bare-shouldered, no pelisse. He watched as she went past him, one tiny hand on the dark iron railings. Rose’s shoulder blades were smooth and fluted, whereas hers looked like two harmonic arches of a harp, with muscles for strings. (p. 286)
So here's me, making my own exit. Till the next blog post ...