‘Smart’ by Mary Robison

Smart by Mary Robison, 1981

The magic trick:

Dialogue as characterization

Robison’s characters come to life in a way that really is unique to her writing style. It’s not through mere description. It’s not through the characters’ actions either.

The key. I think, is their dialogue. But even that needs a qualifier. It’s not that they speak with sparkling local color. It’s not even that they talk in ways that cleverly recreate how real people talk.

So what is it?

These characters say things that, even in just two or three lines, let the reader picture exactly who they are. Their approach to conversation might reveal some social anxiety, or perhaps a confidence that the reader can see through. It’s a technique that trusts the reader to stay observant and engaged, but if the reader picks up the clues, the characters really do come to life.

It’s brilliant dialogue as characterization.

And that’s quite a trick on Robison’s part.

The selection:

Brendie Ziegler joined us. She looked pleasantly harassed by her hostess duties. She was streaming water, and there were wet highlights on her torso and nice legs. “Here’s a guy who looks capable of building a grill fire for us,” she said to Phil.

“Hey, I’m a guest,” he said.

“No one will help, so we’ll all just go hungry, I guess,” Brendie said.

“I don’t know where anything is. You’d have to show me,” Phil said. He made his best smile for her. It was loose and lopsided and boyish, and when he shined it on people they often giggled in response.

Brendie said, “Follow me.”

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