Writing Review: The Host, by Stephenie Meyer, and thoughts on dialog and action tags

I’ve only read a few chapters into The Host by Stephenie Meyer but I think I’m done.

The opening chapters of SF can be a challenge because the reader needs to be acclimated to the world, but an operating room with excited students that seem irrelevant to the rest of the story isn’t the best choice. Following that with a memory from the host whose past the narrator is experiencing rather than the eventual narrator’s own story is disorienting.

By Chapter 3 I can figure out what’s going on but Chapter 4 goes further back in memory and the writing style becomes simplistic and repetitive in rhythm. Since the host is in her teens at this point I assume the writing is supposed to be YA, but it’s not quite John Green. I might have been tempted to open the novel here and maybe present the story in parallel timelines because this scene is less confusing and has action. This is where I stopped reading though, so I don’t know how well my idea would work.
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In Chapter 2 there are sentences that have timing or logic issues which I wanted to look at.

For contrast, I’ve quoted an example that is fine. We’re in first person POV. The narrator is immobile, getting used to her host body. She has not opened the host’s eyes but has been listening to a conversation. (The following three quotes are from Chapter 2 of “The Host”.)

The woman breathed out heavily. A sigh. “But where did she come from?”

The narrator hears a sigh, then the spoken words. This is an action tag to the dialogue that makes sense. (Though it’s repetitive to have her breathe out heavily and then tell the reader it was a sigh.  A member of my old writing group would tag this as “reader gets it”)

But compare that with the next quote. After some internal narrative, a new paragraph starts:

The woman was defensive. “We do not choose violence. …”

How does the first person POV-eyes closed narrator know the woman is defensive? She can’t see the woman grimace or tense up because the eyes of the host are closed. We weren’t given any audible clues.

I think the author is trying to color the tone of the words, to imply tension and attitude, but the narrator can’t know this before the first word is spoken. It’s not an audible event that precedes the words like the sigh in the previous example. Maybe she can read it from the woman’s voice, but even that can’t happen until she hears some words. Just because the author knows doesn’t mean the narrator can know.

Later in the scene:

“Why should she have to?” the man muttered, but he didn’t seem to expect an answer.

The woman answered anyway. “If we’re to get the information we need -“

Again, we are told the woman is answering before she speaks. How does the narrator know it is an answer until the end of the sentence? And, by then it’s obvious that she’s answering so whether the reader needs to have it highlighted as “anyway” is questionable, though it does show some insistence on the woman’s part.

One could also wonder how, without eyes and in first person POV, the narrator understands that the man didn’t seem to expect an answer. Maybe he whispers or tails off. Or maybe it’s just lazy writing; telling rather than showing (or hearing). And inexperience with first person POV.

Dialogue tagging before the dialogue is more acceptable in non-fiction writing because the narrator is supposed to know everything in advance. We can dialogue tag in advance comfortably when we are instructing:

It was Lincoln who said, “We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses.”

Or even action tag in advance:

Just before he fell off the stage and broke his arm, the actor delivered the line, “Men at some time are masters of their fates.”

This only works if reported after the event, like a news story. It could even be done in first person POV as long as it’s delivered after the diagnosis of a broken arm.

When I fell off the stage and broke my arm I had just delivered the line, “Men at some time are masters of their fates.”

But, though “The Host” is in past tense, I’ve seen no indication that the narrator is writing to us from the future.

Dialog or action tagging before the dialog can also be more acceptable in third person POV because the narrator can be varying degrees of omniscient and, like the non-fiction author, can know someone is going to speak or what tone of voice they will use. An omniscient narrator might know the woman feels defensive or that the man does not expect an answer.

But a first person (and blind) POV narrator can only know tone of voice after words are spoken, or that someone is answering after hearing their voice and determining what that person intends to communicate.

To me it feels like careless editing of a writer who thinks in third person rather than first person.

Was “Twilight” written in third? I don’t remember. But the prose and plot confusions in “The Host” are enough to convince me not to finish reading this one.


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