I love close reading. There’s something about taking a short passage from a novel or poem and examining its parts that really appeals to the nerd in me.
So, last week I put up two passages from two very different novels (but both novels I love) that show dialogue between men. I’m pasting the passages at the very bottom of this post, so you can scroll down to read them. But here are my thoughts on why they work well.
Natural Born Charmer by Susan Elizabeth Phillips
SEP writes characters I love. In this passage, we see a father and son who’ve been absent from each other’s lives. If you haven’t read the book, I think you’d have to read the passage a couple times to get that, but the elements are there: Dean telling Jack he’s just a sperm donor to him and accusing him of abandoning a pregnant girlfriend and child. Jack acknowledging he ran away when he found out his girlfriend was pregnant.
In fact, Jack and Dean seem to agree a couple times in this passage, but because they’re agreeing on how crap Jack has been at being a father, the whole passage is fraught with tension. It gets so bad that Jack tells Dean he’d wanted him aborted.
What I like about this passage is that it’s giving me loads of backstory without being boring. The narrator’s not telling me what happened in the past; the characters are. But they’re not being obvious about it. Well, okay, maybe a little obvious, but they’re not coming out and saying, “I hate you because you abandoned me.” They’re being much more descriptive.
But SEP’s not just giving backstory. She’s also cranking up the tension between the two men to breaking point. With a parting line like Jack’s, what reader wouldn’t suck in a breath and feel the verbal belly-punch that Dean feels?
She’s also building sympathy for April, who isn’t in the passage. Here’s a woman who was abandoned because she was pregnant, and refused to have an abortion even though it’s what her boyfriend wanted her to do. Whatever happened once she had Dean (which you won’t be able to tell from this passage), it would’ve been difficult for her to go through a pregnancy in those circumstances.
Pieces of Sky by Kaki Warner
When I first wrote about reading Pieces of Sky, I wrote about how I loved the way Kaki develops the relationships between all her characters, not just the hero and heroine, so that you can really believe in the depth of love between them. It might be a bit tricky to see the love shining through the passage below, but the depth of emotion is certainly there.
So, first off, the passage shows two brothers – our hero Brady and his younger brother Jack. Even if you haven’t read the book, I think you can figure out who’s the older brother – not just from the expression “You little sonofabitch” but from seeing how Brady commands the situation and how Jack lets him. I say that as an older sister who regularly tormented my younger brother in any way possible.
There are three things I particularly love about Kaki’s writing, and they’re all reflected here.
1. The language she uses, and the language her characters use, supports the setting she’s writing about. A man’s office in New Mexico Territory in the 19th century is vastly different to a man’s office in London in the same period. The setting is harsh and raw, and so is the language used. Brady trying to threaten Jack with dogs and stumps doesn’t just show us what the characters are like and the tension between them; it also paints a picture of the location. Harsh and raw, but not bleak. When life is a daily struggle for survival, people can be wickedly funny, and in Kaki’s writing they certainly are.
2. The dialogue is pitch perfect. I can hear the confusion in Jack’s voice and the anger in Brady’s. There isn’t a single “He said angrily” in the passage, and the emotions shine through the words they use. I love that Brady starts bragging about his anatomy and then resorts to physical tussling when it looks like the conversation is getting too personal. I’ve seen and heard men do this, especially with their brothers, and that makes the characters so much stronger to me, much more human. I like my characters to be realistic, but I believe I’ve mentioned that before.
3. There are no spare words. Every word pulls its weight and has purpose. When Kaki writes dialogue, she doesn’t muck it up with introspection, or even much action. The action in this passage punctuates the dialogue, supports it, underlines it. The verbal wrangling between the brothers is the most important thing here, and she lets the dialogue stand on its own instead of telling us what the brothers think while they speak. This paragraph is proof that I struggle to do that, since I say the same thing in three slightly different ways. Sigh.
There, my thoughts.
Now here, the passages:
Natural Born Charmer by Susan Elizabeth Phillips
Jack was waiting in the bedroom when he came out. The house was quiet. Riley and Puffy had presumably been tucked in for the night. Jack tilted his head toward the hall. “I want to talk to you. Downstairs.” Without waiting for a response, he left.
Dean threw off his towel and tugged a pair of jeans over his damp legs. It was way past time to have this out.
He found Jack in the empty living room, his fingers stuffed in his back pockets. “I heard her screaming,” he said, gazing out the window. “It looked bad.”
“Hell, I’m just glad you finally got around to remembering you left her alone. Good job, Jack.”
“I know when I f*ck up.” Jack turned, his hands dropping to his sides. “I’m feeling my way with her, and sometimes I get it wrong–like tonight. When that happens, I do my best to fix it.”
“Admirable. Very admirable. I’m humbled.”
“You never did anything wrong in your life?”
“Hell, yes. I threw seventeen interceptions last season.”
“You know what I mean.”
Dean hooded his thumb in the waistband of his jeans. “Well, I’ve got a bad habit of picking up speeding tickets, and I can be a sarcastic son of a bitch, but I haven’t left any old girlfriends pregnant, if that’s what you’re driving at. No bastard kids running around. I’m embarrassed to say it, Jack, but I don’t seem to be in your league.” Jack flinched, but Dean wanted to annihilate him, and he needed more. “Just to make sure you understand . . . The only reason I’m letting you stay here is because of Riley. You’re nothing but a sperm donor to me, pal, so keep out of my way.”
Jack wouldn’t back off. “No problem. I’m good at that.” He moved closer. “I’m only going to say this once. You got a raw deal, and I’m sorrier about that than you could ever imagine. When April told me she was pregnant, I ran as fast and as far as I could. If it had been up to me, you’d never have been born, so factor that in next time you let her know how much you hate her.”
Pieces of Sky by Kaki Warner
There were two ways to calm an upset woman but Brady doubted Jessica would allow him to do either. So instead of going out onto the porch after supper as he usually did, he grabbed Jack by the scruff of his neck and steered him down the hall to his office. He used his brother’s head to open the door, shoved him through, then slammed the door shut behind them.
“You little sonofabitch!”
Jack grimaced and rubbed his forehead. “You bent my hat.”
“I’ll bend your ass around a stump and call the dogs if you ever do that again!”
Jack squinted at him as though trying to focus. “What’s that mean, exactly?”
“It means I’m mad, you stupid bastard.”
“No. That thing about the stump. Why would the dogs–”
[***later that same scene***]
“When are you going to marry her? Assuming she’ll have you?”
“When this thing with Sancho is over.”
Jack laughed. “That could be forever. Your tongue is hanging out as it is.”
“That’s not my tongue.”
Which only made Jack laugh harder. “Just do it. Before she leaves you standing in the dust with your cock in your hand.”
“Hell, I’d need two hands for that.”
“I’m just saying you better make your move before it’s too late.”
“Oh? How’s this, then?” Brady drove a foot hard against Jack’s propped boots and sent him toppling backward. His brother and the chair hit the floor with a rewarding thud that made the glass doors of the bookcases rattle.
He peered around the side of the desk to see if Jack was hurt and was disappointed to see he wasn’t. As he settled back, a baby’s indignant cry echoed through the hall. “Now look what you’ve done.”