Moira Young’s Blood Red Road (Dust Land Series #1) is the first YA novel I read with a strong narrative dialect. Initially disarming, the stylized language quickly becomes exciting, fresh and, at times, lyrical. Young’s vernacular transcends the invention of a fictional vocabulary1. The amplified language shapes the novel’s first-person narrator, Saba, as well as the distinctive setting.
After a short, poetical preface (introducing Saba and her family’s anecdotal history), the story begins:
The day’s hot. So hot an so dry that all I can taste in my mouth is dust. The kinda white heat day when you can hear th’earth crack.
We ain’t had a drop of rain fer near six months now. Even the spring that feeds the lake’s startin to run dry. You gotta walk some ways out now to fill a bucket. Pretty soon, there won’t be no point in callin it by its name.
(pg 10, iPad, Nook App)
The short paragraphs are loaded with personality and information. How does Young cram so much character and setting into so few words2?
An element of building character is defining their speech patterns3. The author decides a character’s personal language: favored words and phrases, vocabulary complexity, emphasis of particular words, a consistent accent or one sprinkled on specific words, ad infinitum. Generally, characters’ speech habits are revealed in dialogue. Yet, idiosyncratic vernacular is not limited to dialogical expression4. Conversational restriction is most probable in third person narrative, however exceptions exists5. Luckily, we don’t get caught in this theoretical vortex because Blood Red Road is written in first person. (Hooray!)
Our author creates a twangy, accented dialect by dropping letters, misspelling or phonetically spelling words, imperfect grammar, and choosing single syllable words and simple sentence structures. These decisions depict some of the narrator’s characteristics. Saba has a limited vocabulary, as illustrated by the repetition of words (hot, dry, now). Marry word choice with phonetic (mis)spelling and the reader assumes Saba is uneducated.
However, our narrator possesses raw intelligence, lyrically observing, “Pretty soon, there won’t be no point in callin it by its name. Silverlake.” The phrase “pretty soon” and the first use of a comma, stand out in this context as complex. Also, the concept is complicated, connecting the evaporating lake to its name, Silverlake. Saba understands irony. (Consider an alternative: “Soon there won’t be no lake.” It contains the same information, but lacks character development and specificity.) Also, the metaphorical sentence, “The kinda white heat day when you can hear th’earth crack” bolsters the theory that Saba is sharp. The use of adjectives (“white heat”) along with the memory/conjecture (“when you can hear th’earth crack”) makes this sentence more elaborate than the rest (especially in contrast to its corporeal, preceding sentence). By elevating some language, Young illustrates the narrator’s acumen.
Further, Saba is conversational, speaking directly to the reader. Using the words “you” and “we,” as if we’re chatting with her lakeside, drawing us into her, becoming partakers in the story. The intimacy of personal pronouns depict Saba’s trust of the reader, her willingness to share her story with us. In turn, establishing our trust in her. She is a reliable narrator6.
Finally, Young’s writerly choices impart Saba’s emotional state: angry, frustrated, yet unresigned. Many of the paragraphs’ words contain hard consonants, eliciting the sharp tension of acrimony or irritation. Also, consider the sentence structure: “We ain’t had a drop of rain fer near six months now” versus “It hasn’t rained in six months” as if the weather is personally assaulting her family.
Young uses word choice, deconstructed spelling and grammar, metaphor, irony and sentence structure to create a complex narrator and endow her emotional state. Within two paragraphs, the reader is already empathic to Saba. Most importantly, we want to continue reading.
Similar to character creation, the construction of setting relies on authorial decisions. The same words characterizing the narrator also define the landscape, fundamentally linking the act of character creation to setting creation. Theoretically, like real people, characters are (at least) partially defined by their surroundings, where and when they were born and raised. From the same words introducing Saba, what may we derive about the setting?
The landscape is not explicitly described in the first paragraphs. There are no direct details of the ground, the spring, the lake, not even the bucket or the water. Instead the landscape is inferred through Saba physical and emotional response to it7. Her home is not a place of comfort: “…all I can taste in my mouth is dust.” The choice of “all” relates isolation and hopelessness, while the “dust” she tastes is, simply, death. “We ain’t had a drop of rain fer near six months now,” assumes a threatening location. Silverlake is attempting to kill her and her family. The word choice “spring” is pointed, as well. Spring is rebirth, fruitfulness, wealth, green, the constant renewal of life, the spring of eternal youth. So, “even the spring that feeds the lake’s startin’ to run dry” uses these connotations to exaggerate the dire setting and situation8. Young casts Silverlake as hard, dangerous, rural, and harshly isolated. The reader may presume that much of Blood Red Road’s setting will be similar to Silverlake’s, if not in landscape then in tone and level of danger.
Young quickly and skillfully introduces readers to Blood Red Road. The dialect is interesting, and informs the narrator’s personality, history and situation, as well as the book’s setting and stakes. The culmination of these choices engage the reader with the text, the narrator and the story, eliciting readers’ “What Happens Next?” response.
- Examples: Slick, futuristic words defining fictive technology like “hoverboards” and “crash bracelets” in Westerfeld’s Uglies. Gritty, dystopian slang like “shank” and “shuck” in James Dashner’s The Maze Runner. ↩
- See my post Arclight: Lifeless in Grey for an example of an unsuccessful opening paragraph. ↩
- I cannot take credit for originating this idea (assuming it is an original idea, which I don’t believe it is). It sprang from a conversation regarding character development and definitions of identity. My friend made the point that if you were to “take three characters in your book and have them all argue the same point — each would do it differently, with different language, different emphasis.” Thus, sparked the idea for this post. ↩
- For a related idea on character’s thoughts expressed within the narrative (as opposed to in dialogue), see Ashes: Thought Acts in YA or Allegiant: Thought Acts in YA. ↩
- Note: In James Wood’s definition of free indirect style (or close third person), some of an author’s word choices in the narrative may infer a character’s personality or thoughts. In which case, word choice outside of dialogue can assist character formation. ↩
- I have stated many times on this blog that there is no such thing as a reliable narrator, and unlike Donald Maass, I believe this to be true. See On Humanity & Unreliable Narrators. ↩
- A character’s feelings toward situations, including their locale also defines a novel’s tone. Thus, we have landed back at the fact that all elements of writing are fundamentally intertwined. I will try to write something on tone in the future. ↩
- By creating a “dire situation” Young sets high stakes in these paragraphs. (The life or death situation of a drying up water source.) I will write more on raising stakes in future posts. ↩