Monday, December 10, 2012

Inklings of Melissa Marr’s Prose Style

November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo,, which means I just spent 30 days of my life trying to toss together a 50,000 word novel.  As I wrote, I felt frustrated with how my writing style was turning out.  “How do the writers I love write their novels?” I wondered.  “How does Melissa Marr craft her novels?” Then it dawned on me: I could do an in-depth analysis of some of Melissa Marr’s writing!

Naturally, I pulled my favorite Marr book from my shelf, Ink Exchange (the 2nd book in Marr’s Wicked Lovely series).  I always come back to this book because it’s an easy, fast read, yet it leaves me feeling as though I have read something rich and delectable.  How does Melissa Marr do that?  She accomplishes prose that is both simple and complex.   

Melissa Marr’s Ink Exchange is shelved in the YA section at the library but is also capable of attracting an older scene. 
Older readers of fantasy will be drawn in by the dark supernatural element and surprised by a theme that reinforces the affirmation of human identity and self-reliance.” –Kliatt 

“The sexual tension is subtle but makes the story most appropriate for high school students. Teens will appreciate this title more after listening to/reading the first volume. Twilight fans will enjoy this dark, brooding audiobook.” – (School Library Journal (on the audio))

A quick excerpt from Marr’s biography reveals her writing heritage: “Melissa grew up believing in faeries, ghosts, and various other creatures. After teaching college lit for a decade, she applied her fascination with folklore to writing.”  (

Marr comes from a literary background and has a career as a college teacher to uphold; this novel is bound to be something that adheres to writing rules.  As well, by focusing her novels in pre-established folklore, she has a history to do justice to when incorporating it into her novels.  Persons looking for tales of fey are going to have expectations when they enter the world of Wicked Lovely.  These activity systems play roles in determining Marr’s prose style, as do the YA label and the publisher helming the project, Harper Collins (through their imprint, The Bowen Press).  Harper Collins has a particular image to maintain as a publisher, there is a particular level of writing required for a book to be classified as YA, and Marr’s editors, agents, and publicists also have an image riding on this publication.  At the time of Ink Exchange’s publication, Marr was already a New York Times Bestseller, courtesy of her debut novel, Wicked Lovely, and she had that standard to maintain. 

Beyond all of that, Marr already had a prose style established in Wicked Lovely, and being a direct companion to the first book, Marr needed to craft something that could stand alongside WL and complement its prose style.   The book needed to be quick, compact, and stimulating, at the same time maintaining the prestige it has earned and doing justice to its writer’s background.

The thing that I find most necessary to consider when writing a YA novel is dialogue.  Dialogue reveals characters, scene, and plot.  YA readers want to be engaged in the novel; for me, that means that I want fast, fluid dialogue, interwoven character descriptions, and a smooth, beautiful narration that carries my reading experience from start to finish.  Incidentally, dialogue is what concerned me most when crafting my NaNoWriMo novel.  It felt forced and choppy, spliced into thick, chunky paragraphs of descriptive text, and the characters felt two-dimensional yet over-described.  So, here to goes.  Time to decode Melissa Marr’s dynamic dialogue.

D   I   A   L   O   G   U   E
When I write dialogue I tend to get stuck in a rhythm of “he said,” “she said,” “he said,” “she cackled,” “he howled,” “she snickered,” “he said,” rinse and repeat.  When I attempt to break away from those habits I worry that my readers won’t be able to follow who it is that is talking.  Melissa Marr, however, is able to integrate dialogue flawlessly.

Look at this example from the prologue of Ink Exchange:

Her pulse beat too fast under her skin when she saw him.  She straightened her shoulders—not fleeing or backing away, bold despite the shadows that clung to her—and motioned to his arm where his name and lineage were spelled out in an ogham inscription surrounded by spirals and knots that morphed into stylized hounds.  “That’s gorgeous.  Rabbit’s work?” (pg. 1)

Marr uses descriptions of her character’s physicality, i.e. “her pulse beat too fast…” and “[she] motioned to his arm…” to indicate that her female character is the one to speak in this paragraph.  Introducing action and dialogue by the same character in the same paragraph is an effective technique, and it builds the plot in a multifold way.  Not only does it convey the main character’s perspective, allowing the “That’s gorgeous…” to be attributed to her, it also captures the physical description of the male character, indicates the nature of the main character—she’s willing to boldly strike up a conversation with a stranger—and sets the scene for the rest of the book. 

Moving away from dialogue for a quick jaunt, I want to zoom in on the word choice for this paragraph.  “Bold,” “shadows,” “ogham,” “knots,” “morphed.”  This word choice paints a picture of the mood and nature of this book: a twisted, spiraling descent into the world of dark fey.  I appreciate Melissa Marr’s word choice throughout Ink Exchange.  In a smorgasbord of verbiage, here are a few examples from the 325 page tome: cacophony, fealty, lust, marrow, zinging, trysts, guise, wicked, strange-sweet, sustenance, sauntered, illusive, tactile, symphony, ecstasy, slithered, ethereal.  I chose these words because I liked what they invoked in me.  With a mere 325 pages to write down the entire story, Marr needed to choose words that were effective in creating mood, tension, and emotion.  The language is at a slightly elevated reading level, a nod to her literary heritage and to her more mature readers.  (I had to Google what “ogham” is.  Did you?  So there you have it, “ogham,” a shout-out to Marr’s upbringing in ancient folklore.)

Another quick rhetorical device worth noting in this paragraph is the use of parenthesis.  “…straightened her shoulders—not fleeing or backing away, bold despite the shadows that clung to her—and motioned…”  We didn’t need explicit description of the fact that the main character didn’t back away; we already knew that she was bold because she straightened her shoulders, and by straightening her shoulders and then speaking with the man we knew that she didn’t flee or back away.  By emphasizing this with parenthesis, though, Melissa Marr makes sure that her readers are paying attention.  Flee, bold, shadows, clung.  All of these words are extremely evocative, and all of these words hint at future happenings within Ink Exchange.  The phrase “…the shadows that clung to her…” is also important later in the book, and I appreciate that on page one Marr is already weaving in important fragments of the plot.     

I like this exemplification of dialogue, because it’s something that I know I can incorporate into my writing.  My characters are always doing things; I might as well have them say stuff while they do those things.

Now, how does Melissa Marr approach the flip-side of this example?  How does she incorporate dialogue not spoken by her main character?  

The first technique I noticed is this:

                     “Rabbit?  I feel weird.  Wrong.  Something wrong.”
“Endorphin rush, Leslie, making you feel high.  It’ll be okay.  It’s not unusual.”  He didn’t look at her when he spoke, and she knew he was lying.  (pg. 48)     

Marr had her main character speak first (and because I didn’t include the full text, I’ll just tell you that she introduces her main character’s half of the dialogue with some introspection in the previous paragraph, leading into this section of the book) and then has the other character respond to the main character. Seeing as there’s a paragraph break and quotation break, the other person present in the scene must be talking.  Marr then caps Rabbit’s dialogue with some action from him, just as she did in the first paragraph that I looked at.  Again, I find this appropriate for a YA audience because it leads us along without being too blatant.  The language the characters use isn’t complex either; Leslie’s word choice strikes me as fitting for a teenage girl, and Rabbit’s is fitting for a twenty-something man. 

The choppiness of “Wrong.  Something wrong,” is effective in setting the mood.  Leslie wouldn’t form full, coherent thoughts if she was feeling “wrong.”  She would be fragmented, just as Melissa Marr wrote her.  “Weird” is an adolescent word, showing that Leslie is still young, still naïve, but the fact that she can identify that there is something “wrong” with that feeling hints that she is wiser than a stereotypical teen.  The conclusion of the interaction, “…and she knew he was lying,” reveals to the readers that Leslie is intuitive and has things a little more figured out than her peer group. 

Another technique Marr uses for having someone other than main character Leslie talk is this:

Beside her, Aislinn had finished her survey of the street.  She was always cautious, enough so that Leslie had wondered more than a few times what Aislinn had seen of done that made her so careful.
                        Aislinn asked, “Walk over to the fountain?”  (pg. 71)

Hey!  That’s what I do!  “Aislinn asked…”  But, there’s something different about this sentence.  What is it?  Ooh, I see!  Marr put the “he said, she said” before the dialogue.  I think that’s a slick trick, particularly within YA fiction, because it makes sure that the audience is aware of who is talking before they get to the dialogue.  With this example it’s particularly important that differentiation is made because before Aislinn’s dialogue we’re inside Leslie’s head introspecting on Aislinn’s mannerisms.  If Marr didn’t pull us out of that before someone says “Walk over to the fountain?” we’d believe for a beat that it was Leslie who had expressed perambulatory desires.

This excerpt is also great at character development.  While it looks like we’re learning something about Aislinn within the sentence “She was always cautious, enough so that Leslie had wondered more than a few times what Aislinn had seen or done that made her so careful,” we’re actually learning something about our main character.  Leslie perceives Aislinn’s habits as cautious; she reads that supposed caution as something generated from witnessing or enacting a suggested negativity.  However, people can “survey the street” without being inherently cautious: maybe they’re scouting for a vending machine or admiring the Aston Martin DB5 parked across the street.  Because Leslie reads cautiousness into Aislinn, Marr is subversively encouraging her readers to read cautiousness into Leslie.  The idea that Aislinn has “seen or done” something hints that there might be something in Leslie’s past that she saw or did to shape her into who she is today.  (As the reader and knowing the plot of Wicked Lovely we do know that there is something Aislinn is looking out for that Leslie is not aware of, so this insight underscores Leslie’s intuition.)

The most important thing I’ve found in Marr’s dialogue is just that: it’s more than it initially reads.  The construction isn’t that far from my own; what Melissa Marr does different, though, is she advances the plot with what’s around her dialogue, not her dialogue alone.  I’m wasting words on “he said, she said, he laughed,” etc. while she’s inventing personalities, mirroring mannerisms, and enacting actions through the integration of her dialogue.  Obviously, there are 322 pages that I didn’t mention in this article, but I guarantee that they’re just as rich with prose techniques as the three short excerpts.  The stellar style of Melissa Marr is attributed to the fact that she wraps everything up in one bundle: character development, scene, dialogue.  All of it is factored into every paragraph, one aspect seamlessly blending into and building on the next. 

“No wonder she’s my favorite author,” Kali said.

(Magpie, snoozing on some great literature)

~Kali Brokaw

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