Friday, April 16

Posted by Laurel Garver on Friday, April 16, 2010 18 comments
Welcome to day three of my Eleventy-one awards program, celebrating my 111 followers (plus quite a few more!) and their wonderful writing. Day by day, you'll have a chance to see different approaches to persuasive dialogue in action. As your ever-analytical host, I provide a short commentary after each winning entry that includes take-home tips to try in your own work.

Without further ado, my first runner-up winner is...

Victoria Dixon!

Victoria won You Just Don't Understand: Men and Women in Conversation by Deborah Tannen.

You can read Victoria's winning novel excerpt from Mourn Their Courage HERE.

(My publishing copyright arrangement with winners was a one-time short term use. All rights reverted to the respective authors after one week.)


Elegant. That word sums up this delicious bit of tense dialogue. What makes it so is Victoria's use of milieu and balance.

By milieu, I mean more than just setting. Victoria draws on the larger cultural mores of her Asian setting--how the characters dress, move, gesture, emote, establish hierarchy and express intimacy is formed by a larger culture. That culture pours meaning into the deepness of a bow. Power plays in this environment happen with the flicker of an eyebrow. Friendship is given or withdrawn in the inches between to two people on a bench. In this rigid social structure, so much deep conflict is expressed in the slightest gesture or inflection or turn of phrase.

The words these two men say to one another seem, on the surface, rather bureaucratic and even dull. But the tension ripples nonetheless. How does Victoria do that? She interprets the data through Xiongli's thoughts. His interpretations guide us so we know what to make of Wu. In the West, we might see a look in the eyes as honest, a confident stride as ease. Not in this culture. These things make Xiongli uneasy. We quickly pick up that Wu's manners mark him as cocky--a force to be reckoned with.

If your writing involves any kind of world-building, whether it's a contemporary non-Western culture, an historic culture or a futuristic non-earth world, you need to establish milieu. Victoria demonstrates an important aspect of how you present the particulars of your milieu: use of a protagonist interpreter guide. Without Xiongli's hints about how to understand every gesture, this piece would have quickly become incoherent.

Victoria also balances three narrative elements very well: dialogue, action and inner thoughts/emotions. The dialogue takes on greater weight because the movement through the scene and Xiongli's reactions work alongside to heighten tension. While no actual fighting takes place, there is a constant threat of violence, from seeing a face "covered with scars," to "guards...within sword range" to a dagger clutched inside a sleeve. The constant reading of nonverbal cues also puts us on edge. We quickly realize this meeting is more than two men talking--these are representatives of two large powers, with the ability to back up any threat made.

I think I was most wowed by the insertion of Wu's fish feeding in this scene. This gesture that seems innocuous is anything but. It's a delay and diversion tactic on one hand, and a show of power on the other. It makes Wu appear calm, unruffled by this government heavy. And yet Xiongli's description of "gasping" fish and "waiting mouths" undergirds the impression that Wu holds power over his guild and can call upon them when necessary.

In the midst of all these small gestures, these men exchange threats and negotiate a way for the empire to capture an enemy that Wu's guild has been traitorously harboring. The give and take is so very diplomatic and coldly calculating, you can picture how the enemy Zhang will be brought to justice--in a swift, stealthy ambush. Chilling and powerful and incredibly page turning!

What do you appreciate about Victoria's winning entry? Which of her techniques do you want to try in your own work?


  1. Wow! I think you see more in there than I did! LOL Thanks for the wondereful comments, Laurel!

  2. Laurel, you summed it up perfectly--elegant. That's the way reading this struck me, too. I was riveted and spellbound. Such lush detail carefully woven into an intricate dance of power.
    Congratulations to Victoria for a superb scene and to Laurel for her astute observations. I love this contest, Laurel!

  3. Definitely elegant. Congrats, Victoria!

    I really liked her short sentences and the way the dialogue flowed.

  4. Wow, that is an elegant piece of writing! And I love your thoughts about milieu, I am writing down all your tips, they are great :)

  5. Congratulations, Victoria! Excellent job. As far as comments...see Laurel's. Ha ha ha. Who can compare with her brilliance?!

  6. Beautiful writing! You really bring the culture to life. And you do it throughout the whole book (I'm lucky enough to have read it!). Congratulations Vicki!

    And Laurel, you amaze me. Your commentary is so detailed. I really love blogs that I can learn from. I'm loving yours!

  7. Thanks so much to everyone for the lovely comments. It really means alot, but then, I know you all understand that. :) This is the first time in my life I've felt like I belonged in a sorority. A sisterhood of writers.
    Laurel, your insights are amazing and helpful. I'm so grateful I found this blog!

  8. Oh, very impressive indeed. The restraint is what I like most about it. That is, of course, expected, given the milieu, but this was an excellent example.

    Well done, Victoria!

    (And can I be part of the sorority too? Honorarily, of course....)

  9. Congrats to Victoria! And what a great contest! :)

  10. I hereby grant Simon C. Larter an honorary membership into the secret Sorority of Writers. ;D Thanks for the comments, Simon and Elana!

  11. I especially liked the description and the way you built the character movement into the scene. I think it's difficult to build that into a short piece like this, yet you did it deftly.

    Well done, Victoria!


  12. Victoria: You're most welcome. Well done!

    Karen: Kudos indeed.

    Tricia: Thanks! "Intricate dance" is also an apt description.

    Talli: I so agree--silk smooth reading.

    Crystal: To build milieu is to take a setting and extrapolate how it would affect every aspect of life.

    Shannon. Thanks :-D

  13. Janet: Lucky you! I'm having beta envy! And thanks for your kind words. Just doing what I love.

    Victoria: I nominate you to design the sorority t-shirts. LOL. :-D

    Simon: I think you're in. We promise, no pink!

    Elena: Glad you enjoyed it.

    EP: The economy and polish blew me away too.

  14. Huge congrats Victoria! I think I enjoyed your critique as much as I enjoyed her entry!!

  15. Here's something fun, T.Anne, I KNOW I did! ;D I'm going to print off these comments so I have something to read after my next rejection.

    Hmmm. Designing sorority t-shirts. Have I mentioned my husband's a computer graphics designer? LOL

  16. Great scene, Victoria! And Laurel, I really enjoy reading your feedback. You bring so many interesting points to light.

    For me, the undercurrents of tension built subtly into the dialog made for an exciting and engaging read.

    I enjoyed reading this very much!

  17. Thanks, Eva and Nicole. This was such a great contest, Laurel.