So here is the beginning to a philosophical dialogue I have been writing, tentatively titled From the Hurricane: A Dialogue on the Divine Love. Currently I have 40,000 words out of about 62,000 expected. I am coming here because I am investing a lot more heavily in the dramatic and narrative features of the dialogue than many authors are willing to and it is important that the characters themselves be capable of generating interest. With that said I am interested in what people think of this introduction and whether it creates interest in the main character or not.
I stood in front of the mirror inspecting the strange figure who confronted me there. Who was she, really, this woman who stared out at me? The rays of morning sunlight streaming in through the bathroom window hung in the air about her dark, wet hair, as if suspended in the lingering steam and motes of dust. Were those the beginnings of wrinkles about her mouth? . . . What did they signify? Laughter, or some darker passion? Passion—what am I saying! Just last night I had stared at the same face in hatred for the way its heart-like shape belied the lack of human passion behind it. The face was wrathful now. I paused to gather myself and heard Lana Del Ray come up on my playlist. You hear that, Aemilia? We were born to die. The woman in the mirror sported a twisted smile.
The narrative distance of this opening is close to a degree yet at the same time a little distant from several features that are generally challenging for writers. Close narrative distance engages readers with a viewpoint character in a setting, and a dramatic complication. Close narrative distance is on the plus side. Though the psychic distance is also close and deep, too much closeness and depth without readers first caring and being curious about the thoughts can be alienating, causing narrative distance to open from being lectured to rather than shown the dramatic physical world in which the thoughts respond to external stimuli.
On the minus side, are a viewpoint character looking in a mirror, alone, no one else to interact with, and limited, if any, setting development and cues about a dramatic complication.
A viewpoint character looking in a mirror and describing her or his appearance is a widely deprecated description method, too often done, to the point of being trite. A viewpoint character's physical appearance is less, or not at all, important to readers than other characterization features: behaviors, values, wants and problems, personality, and identity. Opening with such a scene is even more challenging from not first establishing reader empathy with and curiosity about the viewpoint character, about her appearance.
This mirror opening to me says the viewpoint character is vain, prone to narcissism. From those characteristics, my resistance to engage is heightened and jeapordizes my reading further. Even self-effacing and self-deprecating commentary won't cure those challenges for me. I'm looking for character qualities, especially wants and problems, I can identify and associate with, get a handle on, and anchor me in the story's drama.
I don't understand this part of the preamble: " I am investing a lot more heavily in the dramatic and narrative features of the dialogue than many authors are willing to". Drama simply put is antagonism, causation, and tension that drives a plot, based upon a foundational dramatic complication that the parts and parcels and whole encompass. To wit, a dramatic complication is a related want and problem wanting satisfaction.
"Narrative features" are manifold, which ones might be most significant are perhaps voice characteristics: narrative distance, character voice, narrator voice, psychic distance, grammatical person, emotional attitude, tenor, register, verb tenses, narrator reliablility, character and narrator attitude toward topics and subjects, and sentence mode; like description, action (and reaction), introspection, sensation, emotion, and conversation.
A viewpoint character in a scene all by herself conducting a one-degree removed from self self-interaction is more a dramatic monologue than a dialogue. This is a challenging opening from not having other characters to interact with, dialogue with, talk with, clash and contend with, bond with, develop each's character. Two or more persons interacting develops each's character from a viewpoint character's persepective, showing her or his character traits, biases, misperceptions, thoughts, etc., and the settings in which they interact, which also develop their characteristics.
To me, this opening underdevelops complication, character, and setting, the three most pivotal qualities a narrative opening ought as a best practice do. In other words, I feel essential introductions are on the scant side.
This is problematic from citing a song's lyrics without citing copyright use permission: "You hear that, Aemilia? We were born to die." Song lyrics enjoy greater use infringement protections than prose, though for prose purposes most any verbatim citation use is problematic. Plus the pop cultural reference and meaning is lost on readers who are not familiar with the song.
The first person narrator looking in the mirror and seeing herself as a stranger has strong potential but I feel is underdeveloped. The jump from one to the other feels too abrupt to me, probably because the opening line is an effect that does not follow an inciting cause. Rhetorical question: Why is she looking in the mirror in the first place?
Strong mechanical style; one minor punctuation glitch: "Passion—what am I saying!" Exclamation point use is widely deprecated for using punctuation to signal emotional meaning that as a best practice ought to be done by context and texture. Prescriptively, a rhetorical question like that should be punctuated with a period or question mark, or in playwriting an interobang [!?]. This is prose, though, which doesn't conventionally use interobangs because text should express meaning, not punctuation use as stage or actor direction.
Hey, not bad. Your introduction to it made me skeptical. 'Philosophical dialogues' sounds like it's going to be a lot of telling in the prose mixed with pseudo philosophy that basically sounds deep but means nothing. Granted, the next paragraph, or next page, may confirm this suspicion.
In this opening, though, you did a good job of mixing present moment actions with character introspection to make the narrative overall compelling. What's missing in these lines, though, is some type of plot to push the story off. I have no idea what this story is about so far, which isn't the worst thing. This is only a handful of words out of 40,000 written so far.
But again, if a point doesn't come up by the end of page 1, you might end up losing some of your audience *unless* the writing is sharp and interesting enough. Though I didn't finish it, years ago I started reading "Sophie's World" by Jostein Gaarder. It's basically a lecture on the history of western philosophy masquerading as a novel. However, even with a book like that, the first pages immediately sets up a plot and a mystery that was extremely compelling.
If you're writing a philosophical dialogue, I do think if you want people to read it, there's going to have to be some type of plot, something concrete the character wants even if this is a narrative that unfolds, from your description, mainly through conversations?
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How many characters are there? I hope it's not just her and the mirror. And I agree with extrinsic on some of those points on your opening. I am curious to see how you work it out, though. When you said philosophical dialogue, I somehow imagined a short work of 5-12 pages...
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Thank you for taking the time to write and respond. I appreciate your feedback. Sorry to be so long in replying. Busy week to start and it has been difficult to log in the past few days, as the boards have apparently been down.
Denevius said, 'Philosophical dialogues' sounds like it's going to be a lot of telling in the prose mixed with pseudo philosophy that basically sounds deep but means nothing. Granted, the next paragraph, or next page, may confirm this suspicion. That's a sound response, but on that front I'm not worried. I'm a professor of philosophy and I've published a bit, and that's no guarantee against producing bad philosophy, but should at least prevent the dialogue from lapsing all the way into pseudo-philosophy. But I do worry whether after going so long without writing fiction (which I haven't invested in much since my college days) I will be able to carry off narrative and character as well as I wish to.
Legolasgalactica asked about the number of characters. There are eight characters, including Elizabeth, with significant speaking parts in the dialogue. So to answer worries it is not just Elizabeth and her mirror, although there is another mirror appearance half-way through. You also mentioned length...perhaps you were thinking of dialogues more the length of the shorter Platonic works like the Euthyphro, the Crito, etc.? There is also a tradition of much longer ones like the Republic, which is big, and the Symposium, which is fairly tidy but pushes a hundred pages. This will fall somewhere between those two in length.
Extrinsic said that he did not understand the preamble. That's probably because philosophers use "narrative" to indicate some pretty specific aspects of narratives, mostly related to the distinctive way that narratives link events with one another via the goals, beliefs, and actions of human (or non-human) actors. Essentially, the issue for me is this. My goal is to invest enough in character and conflict (goals and beliefs) that there is a real narrative to follow that isn't reducible to "hey let's set a bunch of different arguments side-by-side." With a few exceptions, philosophical dialogues treat issues like character, motivation, and conflict in summary fashion. They are just excuses to get the argument underway. I do not think that there is any point in writing a dialogue if the only thing one is going to do as an author is read off arguments and pair them against each other; that's just what we do in every other piece of philosophical writing, except now there are names attached.
Now, about the beginning itself. It sounds like I have succeeded in creating some vague degree of interest but haven't gotten the intro to actually hook the reader. I think that everyone is right that the mirror is a challenge, though for now I am committed to trying to make it work. The reason is that in a format that is constructed entirely out of characters arguing with one another it is difficult to provide moments of introspection, but the main narrative arc depends upon "getting" some of what is going on inside Elizabeth's head. This is something I found quite challenging to accomplish without the mirror. Some of what I wanted to convey came across (her distance from herself) but other aspects seemed to get jumbled (I wanted the scene to display a kind of morbid self-concern, but not vanity). However, based on these comments, I hope that I can put together a superior mirror scene.
Not sure about Lana Del Rey; she may stay or go. But "Born to Die" is the title of the song (and the album on which it appears). Does that create the same copyright problems?
Denevius, just now I am posed to be swamped with grading as students in three different classes are set to turn in papers this week, but I'd be happy to swap sometime in a month or two.
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The part of the preamble that gives me greatest pause: "I am investing a lot more heavily in the dramatic and narrative features of the dialogue than many authors are willing to" implies "authors" globally are unwilling to invest in dramatic and narrative features. Creative writing writers' bread and butter are dramatic and narrative features. If you mean philosophical debate narratives don't traditionally invest in dramatic and narrative features, that I readily understand.
I'm familiar with a number of subject-matter community uses of the term "narrative." Several do not closely resemble creative writing's several parallel defintions. For example, the legal profession defines a narrative as a witness's running account of persons, scenes, and events. In trial or deposition testimony, narratives are objectionable based upon being nonresponsive to a posed question, for testimony not elicited in response to a posed question, or for lack of foundation; i.e., no allowable basis, like hearsay, missing background context and texture, or relevance to the case in point. Bookkeepers, politicians, recordkeepers, police, accident investigators, insurance adjustors, etc., use the term narrative similarly to lawyers and judges in their records as distinguisable from yes, no, or NA answers and brief summaries to fill-in-the-blank form fields or check boxes.
Creative writing defines narrative as the sum and substance of a prose work and also as the parts that are narrated by a narrator persona, but not direct discourse aural sensations like dialogue and onomatopoeia.
Folklore defines narrative as features of gossip, rumor, legend, myth, or belief that detail context's who, when, where and texture's what, why, and how expressing dramatically organized circumstances' content in terms of plot's structured antagonism, causation, and tension. Gossip being brief usually, though narratively expressed, is not conventionally considered narrative by folklorists; however, a longer gossip work may comprise a narrative.
I don't see how philosophy's use of the term narrative would be appreciably different, except as distinguishing speech discourse from other narrative features, like expression mode and scene setting, character, emotion, and action portraits.
I assume the function and purpose of the mirror scene is to introduce the central viewpoint character and voice through use of introspection. Introducing that character and voice up front defines the work's overall narrative distance as close, a strong method for engaging readers, through use of close psychic distance, also a strong method for engaging readers, but problematic from its heavy self-reflexive quality possibly causing reader alienation.
Reader and, more importantly, publisher acquisition editor resistance to mirror scenes is legendary in creative writing culture from the method being overworn and trite and often amateurish. Perhaps you may overcome that obstacle with a brilliantly crafted mirror scene, but a two or more person scene is far less challenging to compose and nonetheless introduces a central veiwpoint character and voice using close psychic distance. That character need only express reaction thoughts that express private sentiments and attitudes and emotions toward the external stimuli she experiences: the scene's influential setting features, other characters, the self, and the topics and subject matters. etc.
Naming a song title in prose is not copyright infringing content; citing lyrics is. Just citing a title, though, only works for readers who are familiar with the song. Describing the mood, rhythm, tempo, the viewpoint listener's perceptions and reactions to, etc., of a song, for example, would be more meaningful and work for more readers than just name dropping the song's title.