Elements of a Good Review 3: Getting Into It with Talking Heads and Chuckle Bunnies

Dummy table

This is way overdue, but thank you and welcome back for round three. Belief, Character, and Dialogue.

I’m late. Let’s go.

Belief

A combination of many of the other elements feed into Belief, but I set it aside as its own because often I’ll come across writers who are experts at world creation, plot, prose, etc., yet the story fails to engage me. This way I can still give the work credit for the writer’s finer points.

For me, Belief stands out most when it fails. You’ve probably encountered it many times before; Amazon is rife with self-published attempts by people who have never run the gamut of rejection and acceptance. I noticed it during an impromptu book club meeting at the pub not too long ago (what?!) when I caught myself saying, “Yeah, I just couldn’t get into it,” regarding a recent Hydra Press title. While it was grammatically well written, everything seemed so stiff and forced. Hence, I couldn’t “get into it.” And that’s my red flag for Belief.

Here are two positive examples of Belief, or rather the suspension of disbelief.  One of my most disturbing reads was Cameron Pierce’s Ass Goblins of Auschwitz. Bizarro in general has a huge obstacle due to the genre’s inherent oddity. Talking toilets, marshmallow warriors exploding during tribal mating ceremonies,  people with upside down faces arguing stock options. Getting that stuff to work takes serious skill. In Pierce’s Monty Python acid trip, impossible characters  interact with surprising realism. The weirdo elements even disappear at points. Not that there weren’t more than an enough scenes where I had to stop (come on, it’s called Ass Goblins of Auschwitz, man!), but it was hard not to appreciate Mr. Pierce’s ability to bring the implausible to life. I also do NOT recommend this if you are not already familiar with just how extreme bizarro can oscillate between groaty and downright profane.

The second, and much more tasteful, is the quarterly magazine, Jamais Vu: The Journal of the Strange Among the Familiar. Post Mortem Press has a history of selecting writers with talent for suspending disbelief. While all the stories are easily five-star quality, one that lends well to this post is “Another Friendly Day in the Antique Trade.” Adam-Troy Castro gives us a beautifully written psychodrama in which nature tears down a woman’s confidence by way of cascading natural disasters, while an enormous mouth opens up and swallows townspeople all around her. I accepted her anguish and the mouth as reality and enjoyed the story.

Character

Books have been written about this–Orson Scott Card’s Elements of Fiction Writing- Characters & Viewpoint being one of the most highly recommended in SF circles. Personally, I like the obvious, stand-out qualities. Real issues to which I can relate. Stephen Chobsky’s Perks of Being a Wallflower. Socially awkward Charlie finds his niche in not belonging with the “in” crowd. Rosie Best’s Skulk. I fell in love with overweight tagger, Meg, from the moment she stood her ground against judgement and set her self-esteem aside to shape-shift into a fox and find true love.

Finally, after a character with relatable issues comes on stage, it’s awesome to watch them change in the shadow of their conflict. Oddly enough, the best character development stories for me are usually horror. I guess because a well executed haunt will carve new souls out of some people. You can’t tell me Cujo’s Donna Trenton doesn’t leave you in a daze at the end.  I wasn’t right for quite some time after sitting in that scorching Pinto with Donna and Tad.

Dialogue

This is my favorite.  I always groan a little if I have to make it through pages of narrative without dialogue. An agent once taught me how editors look for “white space balance,” indicators of choppy, spoken sentence structure breaking up too long narrative runs.  I also think inner dialogue can sometimes be even better, though. Great Voice often comes with this. Check out Pahlaniuk’s Survivor. Testing one, two, three. Testing.

And unlike foxy Meg, don’t be a tagger. Replied, echoed, voiced, interjected, responded, exclaimed, chortled, and God help me, ejaculated. You get the idea. Said and asked usually work just fine. There’s nothing wrong with using special tags for changes in tone on occasion, but even then they tend to rob the character of his or her voice in a single, stupid word. And they’re lazy. If the dialogue is well written, it won’t even need a tag. Any of the old L. Ron Hubbard Stories from the Golden Age novellas show great examples of bad dialogue, but they are written “pulpy” on purpose, to match the Twenties and Thirties of when that sort of thing was just dandy.

Content. “Do people really talk like this?” That’s it. Sometimes dialogue sounds like two professors giving each other a dissertation. Oh, you clever little writer! Sneaky efforts to reveal everything from string theory, to why Jessica can only sleep with men wearing angora sweaters, are cheating and sound fake as shit. Or sometimes people try way too hard to capture the feeling of the conversation… with… Shatneristic punctuation magic–NO! –yessss… … …yes.

And chuckling. Purely nitpicky on my part, but chuckling drives me freaking nuts! I instantly think of the Jelly Fish Lady from Bridget Jones’s Diary.

At the other end of the spectrum: patois and dialect saturation. Faulkner and Twain made this popular, sure; but back when they did it, hey! it was a thing! Today, too many misspelled words in an attempt to capture phonetics can destroy a scene if not done right. Same thing with parenthetical clauses. They don’t bother me so much in non-fiction pieces, but if I’m in a character’s POV and she keeps interrupting her own thoughts with (snarky comment here), I start to drift away from the action after about the fifth voice-in-her-head. You know. Since I’m already in her head.

And the voice in mine just threatened me with chuckling ass goblins if I don’t wrap it up. This has been far too long, but I wanted to cover as much as possible to keep it down to four posts. Next time, I’ll finish out with Originality, Setting, Plot and Theme. Thanks for reading and I will be posting way more carbureted stuff soon. Hard tops, bomber seats, tasteful pin-ups, and that delicious burnt coffee smell of diesel!

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