On Narrative Conventions

About a week ago the Washington Post ran a feature article on Michael Ondaatje, author of The English Patient. He’s released a new novel, Divisadero, and the article examines Ondaatje’s working methods:

He begins with fragmentary images or situations — a plane crashing in the desert, say, or a bedridden man talking to a nurse — and starts constructing scenes from the fragments. It will be several years befrore “a kind of approximate draft” materializes. Then comes a prolonged self-editing phase, crucial to Ondaatje’s creative process, which can take two more years.

“I move things around,” he has explained, “till they become sharp and clear, till they are in the right location. And it is at this stage that I discover the work’s true voice and structure.”

So he does have an outline.

It just doesn’t show up till he’s nearly done.

From the same article, a little later:

When Ondaatje wrote “The English Patient,” he used the same intuitive, build-from-fragments technique. For something approaching a year, he didn’t know who his title character was. Two major characters wandered in, unplanned, from his previous novel. Another showed up, “out of the blue,” quite late in the game.

Intution. Instincts. Writers have them. Sometimes, writers even heed them. šŸ˜‰

I wanted to share those passages from the Post article, not because I have anything profound to say about them, but because the novel impressed me when I read it, damn, twelve years ago. There was a certain… dream-like quality to it. Images the movie made concrete the book left fuzzy, out-of-focus. There was a sense that maybe some of these things happened, that maybe some didn’t. Maybe some of it was real, but maybe some it was dream.

And the thing that impressed me the most?

The dialogue tags.

Ondaatje’s use of dialogue tags in The English Patient was unconventional, to say the lease. He’d use them, but then for other scenes dialogue wouldn’t be tagged at all. Was this being said? Was it merely being thought? How could you tell?

That was the trick to reading The English Patient–putting the text together, deriving your own meaning. Because if you couldn’t be certain of the intent of the text–were these thoughts spoken or unvoiced–then how could you be certain of anything? Did these scenes happen, or were they part of the dreamscape? Did Katherine Clifton love Almasy, or did he merely believe that she did? Was he rememebering what was, or what he wished had been? Where was the certainty?

All because of dialogue tags.

Fast-forward ten years.

I wrote “Make-Believe” without dialogue tags.

Obviously, it didn’t stay that way. I realized, early the morning I sent it off, that I may have been trying to be a little too artsy; the effect would have been a little too off-putting.

Maybe I thought at the time that the dialogue tags — or rather, the lack thereof — would have made for a dreamier story. But that off-putting fear, again.

There’s one scene that I much prefer without the dialogue tags. šŸ˜‰

I was being unconventional enough, though. I spent the morning I sent the story away putting the dialogue tags in. For the best, I know.

Not all writer instincts are good instincts. šŸ™‚

I enjoyed the Post‘s articles on Ondaatje and his writing methods. There’s always something you can learn from the way another person works — from the problems to the pain to the solutions. Maybe this technique doesn’t work for me, but maybe that technique will. There’s always something to learn.

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