Do you strain to find little bits of action to enliven your dialogue that rise above “he ran a hand through his hair,” “she raked her fork through her potatoes,” or my favorite riveting action, “he leaned in”? This scene from Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, suggests we may not be giving ourselves enough to work with.
The set-up: Joe Cavalier has escaped Nazi-invaded Prague and landed in New York City, where he hopes to create superhero comic books with his cousin. At an artsy party in a mansion belonging to the family of young Rosa Saks, he hurts his finger in an oddly heroic way. Rosa invites him upstairs to see her paintings.
The question tosses Joe into a quandary. Chabon then provides subtext that infuses the scene to come [portions excised for brevity]:
From the time of his arrival in New York City, he had never permitted himself to speak to a woman for pleasure…he had not come here to flirt with girls…he could justify his own liberty only to the degree that he employed it to earn the freedom of the family he had left behind.
Sounds like a no, right? But then Joe experiences an irritant that drives him into the very sort of scene he’s been trying to avoid: he overhears a German accent. Enraged, Joe says, “I would love to see your work.”
In excerpts from this long “getting to know you” dialogue between Joe and Rosa, which begins on p. 246, watch for two dialogue techniques that effectively bring to life this dialogue: misdirection and modulation.
Misdirection unfolds as if a deck of questions and a deck of answers have been shuffled together incorrectly. Because questions are not paired with their answers, the reader has to pay closer attention to understand what’s going on.
Modulation uses setting and narrative commentary to extend the scene’s complexity. Each spoken line invites the artful layering of meaningful detail or memory.
Yet Chabon isn’t all about craft here; he’s also using the nature of the dialogue to evoke the artistic process itself. Here are some examples.
“Speaking” is not limited to the characters
Watch as the room speaks to Joe of Rosa’s character.
In addition to her tiny, girlish white iron bed, a small dresser, and a nightstand, she had crowded in an easel, a photo enlarger, two bookcases, a drawing table, and a thousand and one items piled atop one another, strewn about, and jammed together with remarkable industry and abandon.
“This is your studio?” Joe said.
A smaller blush this time, at the tips of her ears.
“Also my bedroom,” she said. “But I wasn’t going to ask you to come up to that.”
There was something unmistakably exultant about the mess that Rosa had made. Her bedroom studio was at once the canvas, journal, museum, and midden of her life. She did not “decorate” it; she infused it.
The characters bring the setting to life as the setting brings them to life
We are told to use all of the senses; here Chabon offers good reasons to use them. Rosa goes over to the phonograph and switches it on. [Read more…]