Leaving Berlin: Dialogue-driven fiction

As I mentioned Sunday, I’m reading Leaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon.  It is a really smart book set in (you know) Berlin right after WWII had ended and while the city was partitioned.

Hotel Adlon where much of the story takes place. After Gentleman in Moscow, I seem to be developing a fetish for books set in an old European Hotel.

I’m probably 40% of the way through.  Kanon does a great job of giving you the feeling of what it is like to live in a surveillance society—I’d like all my friends who tell me that you don’t have to worry about privacy if you have nothing to hide to read it.  More on that when the book is finished.

A few notes.

Kanon is a big publishing guy.  He was CEO of Houghton Mifflin and E. P. Dutton.  And he writes and writes well.

He has a very interesting literary style.  First, more than most novels, his story is carried by the dialogue.  There’s little interior monologue or thoughts.  This might be typical of a book that is a thriller, but it is very engaging and really keeps the pages turning.  It is almost like a cross between a screenplay and a novel.

It also takes tremendous skill.  You are developing character, doing exposition and then moving action primarily in dialogue.  That’s a hell of a lot harder than doing 500 words explaining the history between two characters.

He has one specific dialogue technique he uses that you don’t see too much in modern writing.  I recall seeing it when we read War and Peace (douche alert), but I think it is mostly beaten out of people in MFA workshops.  Here are some examples:

  • Old Fritz turned, embarrassed now. “Well, that’s easy
  • “Not at all. A pleasure. Get in.” Not quite an order, the voice genial.
  • “I know where you live,” Markus said, smug.
  • “Ah,” Markus said, pleased, another test passed. “And what did he say?”

Look at what he does here.  Most writing now assumes the words in the dialogue have to convey the emotion on their own, or else there’s a longer description of how the speaker is feeling.  Here, we have a combination–a tell, to be sure–but an economical one.

How did the man speak?  Genially.  Smugly.  Pleased.  Embarrassed.

It’s really effective.  It can be difficult to convey a full message with words on a page (in a movie the actor speaks and you see their interpretation) but these little words boost the story without losing the crispness of dialogue-driven narrative.  It is a little odd at first, but you get used to it.

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