Today’s guest post comes from Alice of Tales of an Intrepid Pantster. Please give her a warm welcome!
On my blog, I post book reviews, as well as posts about learning how to write. In my mind, the two are inseparably linked. An aspiring author can learn a lot from the books that have come before, and I’m certainly not the first to note that, if you want to write, reading will help.
There are a lot of good things a beginning writer can learn from Jane Austen, but, to keep the post concise, I thought I’d narrow it down to what I think is Austen’s greatest strength. Dialogue is something many writers, even published ones, struggle with, yet it seems to come naturally in Jane Austen’s books. Here’s what a writer-in-training can learn from Austen’s example:
1. Every character sounds different.
Good dialogue varies from one character to the next. Just as you can close your eyes when you’re in a gathering of close friends and pick out who says what, you should be able to take out the dialogue tags (“he said,” “she said”) and still have a good idea of who’s speaking.
In Sense and Sensibility, the Miss Steeles speak imperfect English. They use such constructions as, “If I was to,” and slip “ain’t” into everyday conversation. Their sentences are simpler and more straightforward than the Miss Dashwoods’, which betrays the simpler origins of the former. This leads straight into:
2. Dialogue reveals character traits.
Not all characterization should be explained to the reader. It also needs to be shown, through the character’s choices, actions, and dialogue. Lucy Steele of Sense and Sensibility reveals her less-refined background in her word choices, which better match that of the servants than the highborn characters.
Similarly, in Emma, we’re not merely told that Miss Bates is talkative. We also hear, at length, all of the boring subjects she goes on about, and we see Emma deftly extracting herself from these conversations. We know how well-bred Emma is by her able maneuvering of conversations to avoid unpleasant subjects, without upsetting the speakers. Fanny Price in Mansfield Park shows her timidity in conversation long before the narrator mentions it, and Mary Musgrove of Persuasion is never described as a hypochondriac, though it’s clear that’s what she is by how often she complains about her health. Placing the declaration of a character’s death in her mouth was also the most deft way Austen could’ve shown the reader Louisa Musgrove would be okay.
3. Dialogue moves the action.
In Austen’s work, in fact, we hear most plot events through dialogue. People talk about important events, sometimes misinterpreting them to heighten the drama and sometimes merely relating something our perspective characters couldn’t witness. There are also brief asides which indicate what’s happening around the dialogue. In Mansfield Park, characters converse while playing a card game, and much is added to the scene in the speaking character’s interjections of how to play the game.
In Persuasion, it’s an exchange of dialogue that brings about the conclusion. Anne Elliot is talking to a friend about general opinions on a subject which happen to overlap with her current feelings about Captain Wentworth. She reveals that she still loves him, though not explicitly. She doesn’t think anyone can hear her, or she wouldn’t have spoken so openly. It’s the fact that the right recipient overheard her conversation that she gets her happy ending.
4. Dialogue flows conversationally.
People don’t reveal their innermost thoughts when they speak; they address the topic at hand as diplomatically as the situation calls for. In Austen’s time, that meant women often deferred to men and that social class dictated how openly people could speak. A lot went unspoken, and often not for the same reasons things go unspoken nowadays.
It’s because of these strictures that Austen’s dialogue is so interesting. It’s what isn’t said, what’s between the lines, that creates narrative tension. You read along, hoping, for instance, that Lizzie Bennet of Pride and Prejudice could come out and say she’s feeling more warmly toward Mr. Darcy, and wondering how, despite her limitations, it might be revealed.
Jane Austen’s dialogue isn’t perfect, by modern standards. Her characters make long speeches and declarations that were likely the convention of the time, but that would look out-of-place in modern fiction. There’s more back-and-forth than most contemporary editors would allow. Also, Austen never wrote an exchange between two men without a woman present, because she, herself, didn’t
know what it would sound like. A modern author would be able to research it by watching movies or openly asking her guy friends what they talk about.
Still, considering how well Jane Austen’s books continue to hold up, a young writer-to-be could do a lot worse than to read her books and pay attention to what she does well. Austen didn’t have any creative writing workshops at which to learn to “show, don’t tell,” “write what you know,” and “dialogue always performs more than one function.” She just did these things well, which is one of the many reasons we’re still reading her work.
Thanks, Alice, for stopping by and sharing such a unique perspective on Austen. As a creative writer myself, I appreciate the points you raise regarding Austen’s style and why it works so well. Austenites and Roof Beam Readers, you can find Alice at her blog and on Twitter.