Wine, pizza, beers, blondies, and classic prose — what a delightful combo for a chilly evening! On the agenda for my craft-of-writing group: Dubliners by James Joyce — a collection of scintillating stories by a stylist with a sharp eye and a stiletto pen. It’s an early effort in Joyce’s career, but impressive and instructive. Here are a few tools and techniques Dubliners uses that work remarkably well from a craft perspective:
Recurring, archetypal themes: Many of the stories explore the same timeless themes from different angles, which gives the collection a sense of wholeness. It also makes Dubliners feel completely modern, although it was written almost 100 years ago.
Atmospheric weight: The stories are drenched in urban angst and interactions. Joyce succeeds in creating a claustrophobic, hermetic world which his characters are forced to navigate. This constrained atmosphere serves as a kind of pressure cooker.
Moments of high drama: Many of the stories plunge both characters and readers into intense, dramatic events and situations: Right off the bat, the emotional stakes are high. This creates lots of conflict, even when the plot and action are minimal.
Strong dialogue: Our boy James definitely had an ear for dialogue. One of our group said he spent a lot of time in cafes and it shows: he must have had his pen at the ready. He creates convincing conversations among people from all walks of life — no simple feat.
Physical descriptions as emotional signposts: The stories feature many physical descriptions of characters that offer windows into their emotional states and inner lives.
Stylistic flair: One of the strongest tools in a literary stylist’s arsenal is the skillful use of verbs. As one of our crew pointed out, phrases like “pushed upwards,” “scattered itself,” and “scintillated restlessly” add propulsive power and descriptive punch to the stories.
Emotional endings: Looking at many of the stories, we realized that they almost always end with an epiphany: Not the kind that leads to growth and transformation, but the kind of realization that reveals something about a character’s limitations and disappointments.
Subversion and surprise: Joyce often comes up with an ironic or unexpected twist — upending the reader and flinging a provocative monkey wrench into his plots.
Multiple points of view: This can be highly effective, as Joyce demonstrates with enormous finesse in his final story, “The Dead.” Wow, what a powerful tale!
Classics can be so helpful to read and revisit: They are like coaches between two covers. Write on!