Reading with Daniel - Jade City - chapter one
April 29th 2022: dialogue and character exposition
I'm delighted to share the inaugural newsletter from Reading with Daniel. This is my craft commentary for chapter one of the novel Jade City, by Fonda Lee. For this newsletter, I've picked out two techniques that I think are really worth studying in this opening chapter. Now, it's an incredible opening, and there are clearly more than two things to praise about it. You can comment on my examples and discuss them or present other craft flourishes that struck you.
I've also included an interactive prompt to help you try out Lee's technique of dropping in hints about her story's world -- in a story you are working on right now.
Feel free to share this newsletter, if you wish to, with friends and fellow writers.
Quick summary: in this chapter we meet two "would-be jade thieves" as well as Hilo, a powerful representative of the No Peak clan. Hilo is troubled by reports of another clan seemingly trying to assert power over a neutral area of the city, The Armpit, and by the disappearance of Three-Fingered Gee, a "black market jade carver." As the scene progresses, we see Bero botch his attempted robbery, attempt to use the magic of jade to escape, only to be quickly caught by one of Hilo's more experienced jade users.
Technique 1: The role of dialogue
Two quick ideas about dialogue: good dialogue in a novel, most of the time, should be quick, expressing one idea or image or "thing" at a time -- and it should only rarely used for pure exposition.
In real life, we all meander through chaotic half-sentences, repeating ourselves, lurching from one half-finished verbal gesture to another. If you ever have to transcribe your own speech, you'll see what I mean. It's pretty shocking.
In fiction, however, representing this aspect of speech accurately tends to make your characters either look frantic and hyper, or your dialogue look "inauthentic" and unprofessional, or your writing style look "experimental and literary." The worse news is that it's hard to predict which of these results you will get: you often don't get to pick the reader response to your "realistic" dialogue.
Instead, good dialogue in fiction tends to be terse and to the point. If you need a character to say two things at once, break up their dialogue with a moment of action or narration in the middle.
“Shon Ju says there’s been trouble in the Armpit,” said Maik Kehn, leaning in to speak discreetly under the blanket of background noise. “A bunch of kids shaking down businesses.”
"DIALOGUE IDEA ONE," ACTION, "DIALOGUE IDEA TWO."
In the scene, Maik Tar is kind enough to ask a question that allows our original speaker, Mail Kehn, to keep talking.
His younger brother, Maik Tar, reached across the table with his chopsticks to pluck at the plate of crispy squid balls.
“What kind of kids are we talking about?”
“Low-level Fingers. Young toughs with no more than a piece or two of jade.”
Now, of course, Fonda Lee could have omitted the question from Tar and his squid balls. We would have lost the nice physical gesture and setting detail of the food, but we would have sped up the scene. Kehn could have just said all four sentences at once; they are, after all, all about the same idea. But this would likely sound awful. It would have sounded like those clunky opening scenes in Victorian plays where the servants helpfully explain to each other the history of the family and the house. In reality, the reader's experience would be slowed down, having to wade through a block of dialogue.
This principle touches the next challenge of good dialogue: it is not generally used for exposition. Characters use dialogue to persuade, to justify themselves, to seek out answers, to show their personality -- to affect other characters. But even when someone is explaining something to someone else, it's best to move as much of the actual exposition into narration. Free up the dialogue to be memorable, fun, and light.
The third man at the table wore an uncharacteristically pensive frown. “Even the littlest Fingers are clan soldiers. They take orders from their Fists, and Fists from their Horn.” The Armpit district had always been disputed territory, but directly threatening establishments affiliated with the No Peak clan was too bold to be the work of careless hoodlums. “It smells like someone’s pissing on us.”
Had Hilo said himself, in dialogue, the lines about the Armpit being "disputed territory," the result would likely seem inauthentic. His first two sentences ("Even the littlest Fingers...") work because they are showing him disagree with the earlier statement by Kehn. That's the kind of thing he would say. But the lines about the Armpit being neutral ground would be disastrous for him to say as dialogue. Why is he telling the two brothers that? They already know it. Instead, Lee wisely moves this information into narration, allowing the narrator to explain to us, the reader, the context of this conversation.
This clarity -- the narrator stepping in to give us a little extra info -- then allows for the brilliant line of dialogue: “It smells like someone’s pissing on us.” Wonderful! Had that sentence of exposition not been included in the middle, breaking up Hilo's dialogue, this amazing line might not have the same impact (by the time it arrived, the reader would be getting exhausted after three full sentences in a block of dialogue) and we might also have to guess at its meaning (the narrator's exposition helpfully translates the characters' terminology, such as "kids" and "littlest Fingers," into "hoodlums," a word we already know).
We might represent this sequence as
"MAKE A POINT." NARRATIVE EXPLANATION TO CLARIFY THE POINT. "PUNCHLINE."
Technique two: hinting at the mystery.
One principle of exposition that will improve most manuscripts: what the character wants in the scene should always be clear. Everything else can just be hinted at.
In other words, the reader should only rarely be unsure what the character wants in a scene, what they think is going to happen, and how well they think things are moving for them.
Re-read the chapter to see how clearly and precisely Lee explains Bero's plan: we learn how he plans to do the robbery, how he understands himself ("he had what it took to be somebody"), why he needs a partner to carry it out and what he thinks of that partner... If we were just watching this Bero guy check his gun, like an actor in a heist film, we would likely be (on some level) confused. Or just plain unmoved by the events being described. Why is any of this happening?
(A failure to execute this principle is what makes much of the new fiction you read in writing classes, beta reads workshops etc so hard to read. You constantly have to guess why the character is doing something. And I've definitely been guilty of this in my own writing!)
But Lee is just brilliant here. She lays out Bero's worldview and attitude towards his own plan, updating us as he worries and frets about the plan, explaining his own view of what will happen: "After tonight, he wouldn't be in this waiter's uniform anymore."
(In the following chapter, she does the same thing as Hilo decides what to do with the fallout from the failed robbery, showing him calculate the right response towards each party.)
HOWEVER, even though Lee talks us through Bero's planning in massive detail, so we can feel and experience his tension (because we understand what is at stake), she does not choose to give us a long complex lecture about how jade works in this fictional world. She seems to have decided to hold that back for later, or, instead, to "show" its role in the story via a series of hints, examples, references, demonstrations and so on.
As readers, we absolutely need to know what Bero is thinking, feeling, and anticipating in his scenes -- in order to get pleasure from reading the words on the page. But we do not need to understand, really, how the magic of this world works in chapter one. Likely, such a lecture explaining jade would not only seem really clunky and slow at this point, but it would likely still leave us with questions unanswered.
Instead, Lee shows Bero obsessing over the jade that characters like Shon and the Malik brothers wear (note that in Hilo's opening scene in this chapter, he spends no time cataloguing who is wearing what jade -- why would he?), explains the role of Bero's partner in the plan, and, of course, gives us a few paragraphs of Bero getting to use the power of jade -- before being brought back to Earth.
Sometimes, when we write, we spend so long figuring stuff out about our stories that we feel compelled to "explain" things to the reader. We even start to wonder if we can add a helpful prologue where we explain a few more things. But this chapter shows us that what the reader needs to understand is what jade means to these characters, in this particular part of this setting. Readers don't need the full grimoire in chapter one. Rather, this chapter gives us a glimpse into what jade means to these characters, and what the shift from being a normal human to a jade-empowered one feels like. Through a series of hints ("This must be Lightness") we have a sense of how this magic works (characters can apparently get more alert, stronger, tougher, and faster with jade, and the quantity of jade seems to matter a lot -- the more the better).
But even though we have an omniscient narrator, who could just sit us down and talk us through what jade is, Lee chooses instead to take us there step by step. And I don't think any reader would feel confused or lost here.
To recap: my belief is that if the reader is absolutely clear what the characters feel, want, and understand -- especially in relation to their goals for the scene -- the reader will happily keep reading. We know the details of jade will be coming later. But if those character details are omitted, no amount of jade lore will compensate for our confusion about what those characters are doing, and why. We will be at best indifferent to the events being portrayed, and at worst bewildered.
All right! That's email one. Ready to try out this technique for yourself? Click the link, below, to try a prompt that encourages you to drip in, hint by hint, some larger component in your story's setting.
Wow. I'm so excited to get this newsletter going. And I think it's going to keep getting better as we read more novels.
For now -- what did you think of this newsletter? Interesting? Doubts? Questions? Send me a reply! And / or leave a comment, below!
This is exactly what I’ve been wanting to do–learn the craft through reading. I’ve tried to do this on my own, but what happens is I get lost in the book. It’s a good thing and what makes books so enjoyable, but in this course method, I read through the first chapter with all the curiosity of a reader. I enjoyed it thoroughly and made my own mental “writer’s notes,” but didn’t analyze too much on my own.
This is where this newsletter becomes powerful and the points–of dialogue and hinting at mysteries–are illustrated. I reread the chapter through the eyes of a writer and really appreciate what I learned in the newsletter. To top it off, the interactive portion was very useful for me because I can sometimes “explain” too much. My only question and perhaps I read it and missed it: how often will the newsletters come out and what is the reading schedule look like? I knew this first would cover the first chapter and I believe the next will cover the first 80 pages. Is that correct?
I completely agree. It’s so easy to get so involved as a reader that you lose this analyzing perspective of the craft, and I think Daniel will help us to open our eyes to all this.
Regarding what we have to read for next week, he sent an email in which he said:
“Next week’s email will be only about chapters two and three of the novel. Both are available in the free preview on Amazon, so don’t worry if your copy of the novel hasn’t arrived yet. I’m taking things slowly at the start to keep this a low stress experience for us all.”
So only chapters 2 and 3 for next week.
“my tone was much more teachery than I expected, for some reason”.
Hi Daniel. This tone is exactly what I’m seeking. Thanks.
Thank you. This is exactly what I need. I tend to get distracted by the story and forget to watch for how the story is revealed when I’m reading.
I hear you, Linda! I too get too distracted by story to pay attention to technique. So this process is really is a revelation for me.
Daniel, thanks much for this prompt. I had to leave it and come back to it a couple times because I couldn’t find that ‘something’ to use. But I think I’ve got it now! I think I’ve given away way too much too soon in my novel and this prompt really helped me to see how I could shroud a particular event until I need to shed light on it! Thanks!
I loved this first chapter of Jade City novel. I have never paid attention to certain details while reading before, but with your explanations, I could relate to what I was thinking while reading.
I love the way, author didn’t give away any information about the background and yet made the chapter gripping without confusing the readers. I can see what I was doing wrong with my writing, wherein, I feel compelled to explain some background information to the readers. Though it may not be fully relevant to the current scene, I tried to find ways to include that background and had to struggle extra hard not to make it info dump. I will try out your prompt to see if I can put into practice what I learned in this chapter and from your newsletter.
Also, I always get confused between 3rd person limited pov and omniscient pov. Thanks for clarifying that this book has omniscient pov. I should probably read it again when I have time to identify the difference between the 2 povs.
Teachery? You’ve hurled me back decades. I’m twenty-something, sitting in the front row a fusty, university amphitheater, straining to hear the reedy, über-pedantic words of a tweed-clad prof with sparse, flyaway hair, droning at a lectern. Behind me, a wall of chainsaw snores rises to the cathedral ceiling.
To me, “teachery” is synonymous with Zzzzz. You’re not teachery. Your thoughts and opinions are helpful. They make me consider.
Having considered, I agree. Lee provides excellent “hints” about Janloon and how jade dictates the social hierarchy.
I particularly love how Lee doesn’t TELL readers about jade; she SHOWS them in a tightly written action sequence that demonstrates what jade can do.
“His face was burning. A sudden surge of heat and energy unlike anything he had ever felt before ripped through him like an electric current. He reached the wide, curving staircase that led to the second floor, where diners were getting up and peering over the balcony railing to see what the commotion was. Bero rushed up the stairs, clearing the entire expanse in a few bounds, his feet barely touching the floor. A gasp ran through the crowd. Bero’s surprise burst into ecstasy. He threw his head back to laugh. This must be Lightness.
“A film had been lifted from his eyes and ears. The scrape of chair legs, the crash of a plate, the taste of the air on his tongue—everything was razor sharp. Someone reached out to grab him, but he was so slow, and Bero was so fast. He swerved with ease and leapt off the surface of a table, scattering dishes and eliciting screams. There was a sliding screen door ahead of him that led out onto the patio overlooking the harbor. Without thinking, without pausing, he crashed through the barrier like a charging bull. The wooden latticework shattered, and Bero stumbled through the body-sized hole he had made with a mad shout of exultation. He felt no pain at all, only a wild, fierce invincibility.
“This was the power of jade.”
Lee knows readers don’t need to know everything about jade in Chapter One. They only need a taste–or a “hint”–as you say. And what a hint she gives us!
I barely breathed until Lee forced me, and the chapter, to a “hard stop” when Maik Tar’s vise grip put an end to Bero’s feelings of “wild, fierce invincibility.”
“Hands clamped onto his shoulders and pulled him to a hard stop. Bero was yanked back as if he’d reached the end of a chain and spun around to face Maik Tar.”
Brilliant cliffhanger. I liked Chapter One so much I bought the ebook. Thanks for another stellar book recommendation, Daniel.
I was hooked to the story from the opening sentence. How exciting that sentence was! In a few words she already made me itch to read more, see how they become jade thieves.
Somehow in spite of the fast pace action the world she is trying to build, from scratch must I add, is vivid. Comparing the hot city in the evening to a spent lover was absolutely brilliant. I found it very fascinating how the first explanation on what the jade stones are and how they work is done through Bero’s interior monologue. As the story progressed I felt like rooting for the thief, he seemed like the underdog enough to want him to succeed, but then the author throws a dent in his plan by showing us the indecisive mood in his partner who unsurprisingly is very important for the plan to succeed.
All in all I am hooked and I don’t normally read this type of novels. I stopped after a few chapters and started imagining this story as part of the Marvel universe, checked out the maps again which make more sense now. Very happy to see it will be made into a series.
Your take on the story and the breakdown made me feel at peace. Something was missing in my draft, I was either being too vague or giving away too much. Brilliant explanation, exactly the clarity I needed. Looking forward to learning so much more.
I had a few similar reactions to Lee’s writing. Your observations about comparing the city to a spent lover really hit home, as well as references to the body as well as clan hierarchies. I am also learning so much about what must be present in an opening scene or chapter for a reader to continue, and what can be revealed later.
The newsletter was fabulous! I learned two dialogue techniques I had never heard of before from the other writing classes I’ve taken, and to see how to use them in a novel was fantastic! I plan to use both techniques to write the scenes I am working on for my first romance novel. Also, working with the prompts was great! They gave me an idea for a new romance novel. In addition, I don’t usually read fantasy novels. I leave fantasy to the movies and TV shows. So, Jade City is my first fantasy novel. Chapter One has piqued my interest enough to read the rest of the book. Thanks!
This is going to be good! I love to learn, so be as ‘teachery’ as you’d like 😀
This was just what I was hoping for, practical advice that’s well illustrated. Thanks.
I appreciate teaching explains and encourages application. After reading I went over the examples, tried to write my own, and then went back and used the insights I gained to make the dialogue in my novel draft stronger.
I also did that with the “tasters” also. Thank you so for the opportunity and the community. I read the comments with interest, wanting to share the joy of writing, confident I will learn from the lessons and my fellow writers.
Well, in a word, I would say the tone and content of your email were “perfection.” I read every word and all of it was relevant and helped me understand the craft of how Fonda Lee is setting us up for a wild ride. I love it that she did no more than show us just a taste of the Lightness of jade. As I read this first chapter, I feel like her writing is like watching a movie–even though it is sparse in many ways. I could hear (like in the restroom!), feel, see, smell, and taste every little detail. Thanks for choosing this book–such a great teaching tool and exciting story. Thanks, too, for including the interactive prompt.
Very useful lesson . Enjoyed the details and clarity of the analysis.
I like the idea of dripping information into the story. It’s restrained but it doesn’t feel like intentionally trying to keep things from the reader. We do learn a lot about Bero in this first chapter about his plans, world view and even his immediate actions, but I need to think about what it would look like in a scene that’s high tension but low on such dynamic action. That’s the crux of the moment I chose for the exercise: four people in a car just after escaping a bar fight. One has a secret that another is trying to discover. The other two are caught in the middle. I suspect it’ll rest on that sandwich of dialogue – narrative – dialogue discussed in the first half of the newsletter, but what is said vs. narrated has to be very carefully chosen so that the scene doesn’t end up becoming a box of talking heads.
I’m not entirely sympathetic to Bero yet. It’s clear he’ll be the one we’ll follow, but until I know more about him, and things generally, I’m giving him the side eye for planning to cheat Sampa. For as much as we see his other thoughts and plans that offer information about the world, his place in it, and the value of jade here, that detail suggests something about his character. I wonder what else or how much he’ll be willing to do (or end up having to do) and to what ends.
Also, one thing I noticed is that there’s a lot of references to bodies in this first chapter. The city is like a spent lover and a section of it is called the armpit. The organization is broken up into fingers, fists and then… a horn? Why a horn?
Maybe because a horn is a part of the head and is vital to some animals for sustenance and protection. I’m not sure where you’ve reached in the book, but Chapter 2 may answer your question more thoroughly.
Animal bodies! I couldn’t get past the horn as an instrument lol, but that makes a lot of sense. Thank you 🙂 I’ll be starting on Ch2 later today and I’m looking forward to it.
Excellent email, thanks Daniel. I’ve forwarded it to three writers I know.
The point about clarity for the character especially made me sit up and take notice. I’ve condensed it down to this and stuck it on my monitor:
‘What is the protagonist
The reader must know what characters are doing, and why. Or they will be indifferent and/or confused.
More lore/setting does not help.’
Please, continue being “teachery.” I’m here to learn! And how much fun that is when I also get to read a great book.
I like how the author shared with the reader that it was the first time most people in the restaurant got see how jade affected someone. It was as though we, the readers, were being commiserated with—that we weren’t alone in witnessing the effect for the first time. It drew the reader in closer to the story.
This discussion reminds me of the internet meme, “Tell me I’m [fill in the blank] without saying I’m [fill in the blank].”
For instance: Tell me I’m a cat owner without saying I own a cat.
“Why are you always buying cat food?”
“I know you love the beach, but that tiny sandbox is just a weird thing to have in your house.”
“I tried to put the soup in the cupboard, but it was full of cans of tuna.”
In the case of my current writing project (screenplay) it would be:
Tell me I have the gift of second sight without saying, “You’re a psychic!”
Tell me World War II is on the horizon without saying, “I think World War II is coming.”
Ooooh! “Tell me I’m [fill in the blank] without saying I’m [fill in the blank].”
Thanks for this!! Will definitely be thinking about this more often. I think I’ve been explaining way too much in my WIP.
Like others expressed, I tend to read a passage the first time as more of a ‘reader’ considering the story on more of an emotional level, and often neglect to re-read as a writer, with my knowledge of craft in mind. I will go over chapter one again, with Daniel’s wonderful notes.
Also Technique Two: Hinting at the Mystery resonated with me the most. I always fear giving my readers too much information and want to surprise them with twists. Unfortunately this usually translates into me obscuring the main character’s true desire from the reader. I see now how that can negatively affect the reader’s experience and ability to lean into my story.
Daniel – I’m already finding this very helpful – bring on full professor-mode! I also appreciate the fact that Jade City is not a book I would normally read which is giving me the ability to approach this from an instructional perspective.
“This scene” being…in JADE CITY? Or in my book? In JADE CITY, Hilo begins assessing what he’s going to do next after capturing the young thieves. In my book, my character drops what he’s doing (and thinking about), phones his supervising Captain at Marina Station about the murder and that he wants it, convinces her, doesn’t even change out of his casual garb and runs to the murder scene, where a flustered witness to the murder scene is talking to the patrol cops already on the scene and who called in the “187.”
You mean in the prompt? I recommend using your own story for the prompt!
I like how your enthusiasm for the book and the skill of the author comes through.
Though I didn’t know the value of jade in this world, I knew it did have value and that there were people putting themselves at risk to steal it–all from the first sentence. Though I wouldn’t have chosen this book on my own, I’m hooked and want to keep reading.
Thank you, Daniel, for the analysis. Fonda Lee’s writing is a demonstration of the points you make in your courses…. Show us what the characters are thinking and feeling. Show why we should care. And drip in information as needed. Just the dragon’s toe to start.
The dialogue breakdown was particularly helpful because that is an area of struggle for me. I’m going to take this and rewrite my dialogue scenes. Now I know why much of my dialogue feels trite and flat!
Keep up the “teachery!” I learned more in this one newsletter than I have in many classes, both in person & online.
Useful lesson It made me go back to my novel and think about how I could use these techniques.
Very helpful first newsletter. I wouldn’t have read Jade City, but your insights make it appealing. I love this method of teaching. I feel it’s more powerful than an essay about dialogue, character’s wants, or how to hint. Thank you Daniel
The feedback I’ve had on what *had* been the first thousand words of the opening chapter of my new book was: “far too much going on”.
So it’s helpful for me to try to choose just a half dozen things to achieve in it (even though it’s now in chapter 4). I’m trying to work out how to spread all the things the reader needs to know over a few scenes instead of all in one.
I guess it’s a bit like Daniel’s “dragon’s toe”, at this early stage of the book. There are many different intriguing “toe”s which I hope will be intriguing, but trying to cram too many into one chapter is just absurd.
I’m trying to work out what to include and what to hold back for later, so I’m making a list of what’s in there now, to see what’s there now and work out how to tease the scene apart to make it into several digestible parts, more spread out.
I think partly I was rushing to get past this early part which fills the reader in and sets things in motion.
Yikes: yeah, 24 significant things in 2000 words is just ridiculous.
The prompt exercise was extremely helpful in knocking out a scene which includes the right amount of double entendres (just not the risque kind). They work sometimes as foreshadowing tools. If I had this version of a writer’s Magic 8 ball, I’d reach my word count a lot faster.
Catching up here. I think your style is just right. I want ‘teachery’ please – that’s helping me to learn. Picking on two detailed aspects of chapter one is really helpful, rather than generic statements about the action.
Jade City would not be my usual choice of novel, but having it as a study-aid works well for me. Thanks.