A Valentine for Mr. Green

I’m in love with Mr. Green. Not just any Mr. Green–George Dawes Green. Well, not really in love with him since I’ve never met the man, or even glimpsed him from a distance, but in love with his writing. Just by chance, I found his book, The Caveman’s Valentine, in a small, indie bookstore the other day.

The title was provocative and the description had me hooked: a talented, brilliant musician with a wife and daughter has turned his back on it all to live in a cave in New York City’s Inwood Park. Throw in the fact he’s schizophrenic, finds a corpse at the mouth of his cave, and sets out to seek justice for the victim sealed the deal. I bought the book, expecting it to be interesting; I discovered it was much more. Green is an intriguing writer who is able to tweak writing conventions and twist plots without perplexing the reader.

For example, the dialogue. The standard pattern we are used to seeing looks like this:

“I just got here,” she said.

Green occasionally deviates and begins the sentence with “Said.”

Said Betty, “Romulus?”  or  Said Romulus, “Who was he?”

He also has the enviable ability to write blocks of dialogue between two characters without using any dialogue tags to indicate who is speaking. It’s not easy to do this and keep the reader from becoming frustrated. And it can happen to the best of writers; critics love to attack Hemingway for a confusing exchange in his short story, ”A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” While writing dialogue without tags can be disconcerting in the hands of someone less skilled than Green, he delineates his characters so clearly that there is never any doubt about who is speaking. His dialogue flows so smoothly it’s as if the reader is listening to the conversation.

I liked many other things about the book, including the fact that he has penetrated the mind of a brilliant, if deranged, man with precision and compassion. I was happily surprised with the twists and turns of the plot, and liked it that he offered closure at the end.

Other than a good read, Green’s work was instructive. I was reminded that, within the framework of orthodox writing rules and conventions, there is room for originality and experimentation. Room, that is, if we have carefully crafted our work and developed our characters to the point that their individual voices are so distinctive the reader takes no exception to either what they are saying or how they are saying it.  How do we do that?  Here are some excerpts from my handbook on oral history and the art of capturing voice:

The most memorable characters in fiction are emotionally engaging and distinct. We can usually achieve authentic sounding dialogue when we are dealing with the known. When we venture out of our comfort zone, and invent characters who are unfamiliar to us, we need to find out how the real life counterparts of our characters communicate. Consider the following:

The speaker’s age.
The speaker’s gender.
The speaker’s ethnicity and first language (if applicable).
Occupational or professional jargon.
Speech patterns and idioms of the locale in which the character functions.

Characterization works best when you create plausible voices. Just as the narrator’s voice must be believable and consistent, so must the dialogue of every character–even the minor ones who may only appear once or twice (waiter, taxi driver, witness, bank teller). Unrealistic, dialogue has been the death knell of many otherwise great plots.

Using the syntax of actual speakers eliminates artificial dialogue. People tend to speak in fragments, relying often on facial expressions and body language to fill in the gaps. Using authentic speech patterns also eliminates a problem many novelists encounter–telling the backstory in the dialogue rather than in the narrative.

Your goal is to develop characters that have personality, quirks, mannerisms, and habits. They may be kind or evil, cowardly or bold. They may be educated or illiterate, rich or poor. They may live in a city townhouse or a rural farmhouse. Regardless, they will come alive on the page or stage if the words they speak remind us of who they are, what they are feeling, and how they make us feel.

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