Using advice from Renni Browne and Dave King’s “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers”, I explore the usage – and subversion – of typical editing techniques designed to produce more effective writing and easier-to-read prose.
Browne and King’s largest takeaway from the chapter “See How it Sounds” is that the rhythm and flow of both dialogue and narration is key to preventing the reader from being overly encumbered by the writing itself. Their idea of flow goes beyond “realistic dialogue” and instead into a type of literary conciseness that reads naturally, even if it isn’t fully grounded in reality. Jim Shepard takes this advice to heart by focusing on jilted dialogue as a centerpiece of a short story about miscommunication:
“You know Latin?” He asked.
“Do you know how long I’ve been tired of this?” she told him.
“I don’t know Latin,” Celestine volunteered.
“Tastes Like Chicken,” he translated.
“Nice,” Carly told him.
“I don’t get it,” Celestine said.
“Neither does she,” he told her.
“Oooh. Snap,” Carly said.
It is a challenge to insert four characters at once into a conversation for basic reasons of clarity, but Shepard transitions the bottom half of this conversation into small bursts of speech punctuated by “said”, allowing for both clear speaker attributions and the opportunity to extend the scene without resorting to beats or exposition.
The small bits of confusion expressed by the characters harken back to the famed West Wing screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who was able to hybridize character exposition with dialogue by developing a sense of confusion for both the audience and the subjects speaking. Celestine’s “I don’t get it” coincides with the reader’s ignorance of Kenny’s patch, and Carly’s vocalizing of the patch allowed Kenny to explain to the characters and audience its existence in Shepard’s universe. We can already tell Carly’s curiosity about her husband’s work, Celestine’s ignorance, and Kenny’s matter-of-factness in just a few lines rather than paragraphs.
Carly’s motivation to acquire information is further explored through the lens of the first-person narrative of her husband, who was also able to gain character through informal narrative exposition. Words or phrases were italicized to emphasize the narrator’s personal thoughts his circumstances:
Not being able to tell the people you’re closest to anything about what you care about most?
Within this relatable informality, we are able to understand the perspective of narrator: content with his job’s acronyms and ardent separation from his home life, he is also content with being detached from the thoughts of his wife. The image he has created for Carly is based solely on her external expression rather than any kind of emotional intelligence; when she claims she is happy about her lack of knowledge about himself or his job, he takes it for face-value.
Similarly for the audience, we are limited to Kenny, Celestine, and Carly’s dialogue — and their direct interactions with the protagonist — to develop character images; the informality and confusion of the dialogue scenes relate to the main character’s limitation of perspective. He cannot understand why Kenny would sell him out for sharing his wife’s secrets, and by the end of the story repeats his face value interpretation of Carly when she accepts his apology. In other words, while the reader can enjoy Shepard’s command of natural rhythm and flow of wording within dialogue and exposition, we are also trapped by this flow, floating within the protagonist’s limited perception of the world.