In ON WRITING [MY STUFF] I said, “The two main characteristics of a novel, that I am aware of (among many other things), are the narrative and the dialogue. If you have characters that converse in the novel, that is. Think of these features as the paragraphs of story telling often placed between the characters’ conversational exchanges. Those two aspects are important to get right. So I’m told. Every novel is idiosyncratically different, though they share common characteristics.”
I want to try to show these two characteristics with some examples. I’m going to use some examples from my own writing and some from my favourite authors, and compare them. How valuable this exercise will be for anyone but me, will be interesting. I hope people find it interesting. On this occasion, I’m not going to do a deep exegesis – a literature professor’s analysis – because it may turn some people off reading for life. Pleasurable reading and critical analysis are sometimes not on the same planet.
Let’s start with the narrative characteristic of novel-writing. Below is a passage from my favourite Sci-fi novel, Dune. It’s a novel everyone interested in Sci-fi should read before they’re 30. So says my local Dymocks bookstore. When I heard that I smirked; of course I read it before I was 30! And that’s the last thing I’ll say about age as reading is something every one of any age – able to read books – should do. In fact, you should be reading to your children, if you have children not of that age. They’ll thank you for it.
“Paul looked out his window. Beneath them, the broken ground began to drop away in tumbled creases toward a barren rock plain and a knife-edged shelf. Beyond the shelf, fingernail crescents of dunes marched toward the horizon with here and there in the distance a dull smudge, a darker blotch to tell of something not sand. Rock outcroppings, perhaps. In the heat-addled air, Paul couldn’t be sure.” [Frank Herbert, Dune, p. 136, 1966]
This passage from Dune shows a narrative. It shows the subject and the topic. The subject is Paul, and tells us what he is doing. He’s flying. He’s looking at the landscape below. And he’s describing it. The description is pretty good, and interesting. The landscape is rocky and sandy. It has some interesting features: void of plants, sharp rocks, and dunes. And the landscape appears hot: addled air. The familiar shimmer of heat waves distorting the air, producing a mirage of water on the horizon. But water isn’t visible, like lakes and rivers on Earth.
The passage is only five sentences long. It’s probably the average. But narration can be as short as one sentence, or much longer than five sentences. I’ll give some examples of this later. As can be seen in the Dune passage above, this narrative tells us (or shows us) something about the character Paul, at a particular moment in the story. Usually a passage narrates a single issue or topic or character at a time. A new passage begins a new issue, topic or character. Or the new passage continues with same character, but on a different topic or issue.
“Dehnhardt’s would be easy enough to find, it lives in abundance here, growing along the edge of the unseasonably-dry, sandy riverbed. The tree grew to around seven metres and developed a broad leafy-hood of dark-green. It was an evergreen. It wore a coat of thin, dark-green leaves in the shape of a crescent moon. In spring, its flower was a small, round, soft yellow-white brush the size of a nut. And it gave off a sweet perfume that made her think of happy things.” [Robert M. Easterbrook, Reciprocity, p. 27, 2012]
This passage from Reciprocity is six sentences long. It’s one sentence more than Herbert’s passage above. But hopefully it does what it’s suppose to do: provide a narrative. Or show and tell, as some writers call it. The passage concerns Ellura Strinarr, a minor character in Reciprocity. But she serves a plot purpose: she’s been hired by the antagonist, Alton Rhizikh, to obtain something – truffles. Here she is describing a tree, the one under which certain truffles can be found.
Strinarr names the tree and describes the landscape it lives in: along the banks of rivers. Rivers that aren’t full. This one is unseasonally-dry and sandy. She talks about the general height of the tree, and a general feature: a broad leafy-hood of dark green. She desccribes it as resembling a coat. Then she describes the leaves in more detail. The shape, with respect to a phase of the moon. The tree’s flower, its colour, size and resemblance to a nut. The flower’s scent: a sweet perfume. And the effect the flower’s scent has on her. And this, indirectly, says something about Strinarr. That, given her job as a truffle hunter, she is apt to be knowledgeable about the region’s flora.
As I said, the narrative can be short or long. Here are some examples of short narrative.
‘There was a tap at the door and a man in shabby clothes stood uneasily on the threshold.’ [Philippa Gregory, The Other Boleyn Girl, p. 110, 2001]
Even though the narrative is short, one sentence, it says a lot. It first describes a sound: a tap at the door. Then it jumps to describing someone standing in the doorway, or in this case, ‘on the threshold’. The door is already open or it was opened by someone, but Gregory doesn’t say. Was it important? Not in this case. The description of the person standing on the threshold simply states gender and then appearance and behaviour. He wears ‘shabby clothes’ and stands ‘uneasily’ in the doorway.
But the passage says more than what is stated and described, doesn’t it? The fact that the door is open may suggest the season: summer, or a warm spring day. Gregory’s novel is historical fiction, a genre I like. So something about the time the novel is set and the characters living in it is revealed in the passage. And of course, this is gleaned from the rest of the novel. The man wears shabby clothes. Why is he wearing shabby clothes? He’s a messenger in the 16th Century, delivering a letter to one of the Boleyn girls. He is poor – probably paid a very small amount of money. He’s uneasy because he’s delivering a letter to ‘royalty’ – Mary Boleyn, the sister of Anne Boleyn, receiving the letter, is, at this time in history, sleeping with the king. The messenger is a ‘peasant’ and intimidated, standing before the Boleyns.
Here’s an example from my book The Subjugation.
“As Zann passed out cursing himself for being ensnared by persons of unknown origin, the blackness came before he’d even begun to count.” [Robert M. Easterbrook, The Subjugation, p. 32, 2013]
Faine Zann is chief of security for the city of Nimbus, on the Cuian planet and homeworld of Xinar. Zann has been kidnapped by Hrexan infiltrators. The bad guys. The kidnappers have him in a tunnel beneath city streets which they had dug earlier in preparation for the kidnapping. Zann doesn’t know who his kidnappers are, being ‘persons of unknown origin’, and is mighty upset about being in this predicament. Hence cursing himself. He’s on a makeshift gurney and he’s just been told he is to be taken elsewhere, and that the best way for them to take him is if he is unconscious. So they inject him with something to knock him out. But before he passes out, he’s asked by one of the kidnappers to count backwards from one hundred. But Zann’s passed out, the ‘blackness came’, before he’s even begun counting.
The character has experienced three things in the short passage. He’s experiencing a kidnapping. And he’s experiencing anger and self-loathing for being tricked into being kidnapped. That doesn’t look good on the resume of a chief of security. He doesn’t know the true identity of the people who’ve kidnapped him. Another cross against him as chief of security. How had his kidnappers fooled his security people? Even him? And he’s experiencing being drugged. This is perhaps a painless event, except for the initial needle jab in the arm, so he experiences it as a kind of going into the blackness.
As you can see from these examples of narrative, how the story is shown and told separate from the dialogue, and often the most rewarding aspect of any novel, depending on how it is written. The dialogue is simply what the characters say to each other. But in a novel, dialogue is more complicated than it seems.
“I know this man, a doctor, lived and worked here,’ he went on in French. ‘I … I wanted to see where he lived and to talk with somebody who knew him. They’re such impressive sentences that he wrote. Wise sentences. Wonderful sentences. I’d like to know what the man was like who could write such sentences. What it was like to live with him.” [Pascal Mercier, Night Train to Lisbon, p. 103, 2004]
Raimund Gregorius is talking to Adriana de Prado, sister of Amadeu de Prado, the man who wrote the book he’s talking about. Although Gregorius says he ‘knows’ Amadeu, stating his profession, ‘a doctor’, knowing that Amadeu ‘lived and worked’ there, he doesn’t really know him; he knows him only as the writer of ‘impressive sentences’, ‘wise sentences’, and ‘wonderful sentences’. And from the blurb on the back cover. He then clarifies his uninformed, ignorant situation, by saying ‘I’d like to know what the man was like’, ‘What it was like to live with him’. These are in essence questions, that may or may not be answered later. But it gives us some idea about Gregorius and what’s driving him. Why he’s come to Adriana de Prado’s house. But whether he gets any further depends on how Adriana responds to Gregorius’ surprising, sounding almost like adoration, approach to getting information her brother.
Here’s a bit of dialogue from The Directive, a paranormal/crime story I wrote in 2013.
“You know, Firth,’ Verone began, eager to discuss the encounter, ‘we both know that what you saw wasn’t what I saw, and that’s something you’re going to have to face.” [Robert M. Easterbrook, The Directive, p. 28, 2013]
Although this is a single sentence, it contains a lot of information. Vidocq Verone is the main character in The Directive. He’s an ex-detective turned private-eye. He’s talking with a former colleague, Senior Sergeant Firth Appleby. They’ve been colleagues since Verone was a detective. They’ve both recently had an encounter with the unknown, in the house next door to the one they’re in. They’re sitting in the kitchen of Mrs Felicity Butler, neighour of the house they just come from and had the encounter. They’re sitting drinking tea and discussing the event. Verone personalises the exchange with Appleby by using his first name, Firth. Personalising the conversation this way, Verone hopes as a friend to gently convince Firth that he is mistaken about what he saw. What did he see? Well, you’ll just have to read the book to find out. It also says something about Verone, how he operates. It also says something about Appleby and how he thinks. At this point in the story, Appleby is in denial and doesn’t want to face reality. Appleby’s scepticism sets him apart from Verone at this point – highlighting contesting views of reality. And this contrast sets the tone of their relationship for the rest of the story.
Getting the narrative and the dialogue working properly in novel-writing is what will make it a good story. I hope I have done that. If you have any doubts, just read my books and tell me. 😉