Part three potted
In this module we tackled the ways in which a character’s personality is revealed through dialogue, and the techniques used for presenting it on the page. We looked at excerpts from several titles but examined in more detail The Lesser Bohemians – the second novel by Irish author Eimear McBride – winner of The James Tait Black Prizes for fiction in 2016.
Here is a condensed record of my activities over the past week:
3.1 – 3.15 >> DIALOGUE >>
Introduction to dialogue: We watched a video in which Lead Educator, Dr Alex Lawrie, introduced some of the methods used for presenting dialogue. We considered the ways conversation is rendered in fictional narrative, and how much is revealed by what a character says and how they interact when speaking to each other. In addition to this we examined the effects of introducing dialect voices into a novel. Pertinent examples of conversation were provided, enabling us to consider its impact on plot and characterisation.
Reading between the lines: What does dialogue reveal to us about the characters? Dr Alex Lawrie explained in her video how careful reading of fictional conversations can reveal much about the characters involved. She also demonstrated that we may very well miss subtle moments of tension if we don’t follow some conversations carefully. Excerpts from two of Jane Austen’s novels were used to illustrate this point: namely Northanger Abbey and Emma.
Presenting a variety of perspectives: Once again we watched a video presented by Dr Alex Lawrie. In this she considered the effects of having several characters carry on a conversation without intervention from the narrator. Using the example of George Eliot’s 1861 novel Silas Marner: The Weaver of Raveloe, she gave thought to the likely impact of denying an authoritative commentary on events.
What’s your favourite example of dialogue? We were asked to think about what makes a piece of dialogue particularly amusing, dramatic or revealing, and to provide our own examples of memorable dialogue in fiction. I highlighted Irvine Welsh’s 1993 Edinburghian novel, Trainspotting. We were given the opportunity to share our thoughts in the discussion area.
Introduction to dialect: We looked at the effects of voice or discourse when characters are speaking in dialect, or non-standard English. The authors Irvine Welsh (yes, I got there before them) and James Kelman were used as examples of novelists whose characters speak in a raw and abrasive Scots dialect rendered phonetically. We discover this practice goes back at least to Sir Walter Scott in the early nineteenth century.
Varieties of speech: We were furnished with an excerpt from Sir Walter Scott’s 1818 novel The Heart of Midlothian, which emphasized how dialect can be a revolutionary gesture: clearing space for individuals to articulate themselves in their own linguistic register. Chris Guthrie, a character from Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s early 1930s trilogy, A Scots Quair was used to illustrate what can happen when there is no narrator to interpret or neutralise words.
The politics of dialect: We read an excerpt from the final novel in Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s trilogy, Grey Granite, before considering what impact these Scots voices had on us as readers. We could clearly see that the use of dialect was of immense importance in this example, because it carried with it values that were political (e.g. left wing, Scottish, working-class) and urged us to align ourselves with these principals.
THIRD SET NOVEL
Overview of The Lesser Bohemians: Eimear McBride’s novel is set in London between September 1994 and July 1995, and centres on the relationship between 18-year-old Eily, a first-year drama student from Ireland, and Stephen, a handsome actor, twenty years her senior. The narrative is told in the first person, through the mind of Eily, and while the novel is saturated in sex, on a thematic level it extends to wider issues of acceptance, trust and optimism.
Straightforward conversations: The focus in this section was on the way in which dialogue is rendered in the novel – which is very different from the conversations we examined earlier in this module. Each fresh speaker is given a new line, and the narrator steps in with “he said” or “she said” when it’s necessary to make it clear who is talking. We looked at a short example of dialogue between Eily and Stephen and saw that it was written as spoken, with the narrator largely absent. We also discovered there were no quotation marks anywhere in the novel.
Dialogue and descriptive commentary: We looked at an example of an exchange, which included thoughts and descriptive commentary, from the start of the novel, when Eily spots Stephen at the theatre and is horrified to realise he is coming over to talk to her. We discover the sentence structure in this passage (and McBride’s prose more generally) is rich in the variety of unconventional techniques it uses to present dialogue.
Conversations between several characters: We read a passage in which Eily and Stephen are in the pub, and Eily is becoming increasingly irritated by him looking at other women. She gets up to use the toilet but returns to find another woman in her seat. We see from this excerpt there is potential for confusion when more than two characters are involved in the conversation.
How much have you learnt about how dialogue works? Quiz time! To answer the questions, we referred back to ideas discussed this week.
Meet the author: We watched an interview with Eimear McBride in which she reflected on her experience of writing the novel. She talked about the importance of interiority (or the quality of being inward), and how she approaches dialogue, characterisation and setting. She also revealed that The Lesser Bohemians is the first book in a trilogy. We were later asked how important “realism” of dialogue was to us when reading a novel and were directed to an article McBride wrote for the TLS about the depiction of sex in literature. This prompted the question: do you think that there is a “politics” of writing about sex, in the same way that there is a “politics of dialect”.
Book club: We were asked for our opinions on The Lesser Bohemians, and how well we thought McBride’s distinctive style worked in the presentation of dialogue and character. Also, if anything had particularly struck us or whether we had read anything similar in the past.
From dialogue to setting: We reflected on all we had learned about the presentation of conversations in fictional narrative over the week.
WEEK THREE COMPLETE!
- Pride and Prejudice and the art of conversation – British Council
- George Eliot’s dialects live on in my corner of Derbyshire – Matthew Paris
- So to speak – John Mullan
- Life on the land – Tessa Hadley
- Lewis Grassic Gibbon – BBC Two Writing Scotland
- Lewis Grassic Gibbon: Poet of the Granite City – Paul Foot
- The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride review – Lara Feigel
- Eimear McBride: ‘I’m generally left cold by art with no sex in it’