Thursday, March 13, 2008

Double Talk

1. Dialog is a language of its own; it is neither English nor American nor, indeed, American-English.

2. Dialog exists to advance story, reflect the wound-up drive of the character, and to provide a window into how the character feels about life in general and the story in particular.

3. Dialog is not a record of conversation, nor is it a deposition or transcript.

4. A tourist in Boston asks a taxi driver, "Do you know anyplace where I can get scrod?" And the cabbie replies, ""Geez, I've never heard anyone ask for it in the pluperfect subjunctive before."

5. One of the reasons English is such a tempting language for dialog is its willingness to take in immigrants, an irony given the current political attitude about the physical presence of immigrants. Every day some word or phrase checks in over the border, finds a place in the language. Bungalow. Khaki. Calaboose.

6. Words once italicized because they were foreign are now rendered in roman.

7. Writers such as Junot Diaz don't bother to use parentheses to explain the Spanish; they figure you're smart enough to follow the story, you should be able to follow the language. Cormack McCarthy is focused on telling you a story, not teaching you Spanish grammar.

8. Each character is auditioned and rehearsed to be a bundle of agenda, not a court reporter or stenographer. Characters say, think, act in terms of what they want, what they do to effect what they want,how they handle the frustrations of not getting what they want, how to express themselves if getting what they wanted turns out not to live up to expectations.

9. Delia. The Gift of the Maggi. "You sold your father's watch to get me these freaking combs which are no longer any freaking use to me because I sacrificed my long, luxurious plait of hair to get enough money to buy you a watch chain?"

10. Characters speak to their agenda, you know, the agenda that causes the story in the first place.

11. A group of passengers on a cruise ship are stranded on a desert island after the ship hits a reef. One of the ship's officers is in the group. He assigns roles to the survivors. The radioman is supposed to start trying to make contact. A passenger known to be an architect is assigned to scout a suitable location for a camp site. An outdoorsy type is assigned to gather wood to build a fire for signaling and cooking. One of the survivors, a Japanese tourist, is assigned to supplies. A motherly sort is assigned to cooking, a few younger survivors are sent to scout for possible food and water sources. Everyone is given an assignment. Some hours later, at the camp site, a fire blazing, the smell of cooked fish and some tropical fruit wafting on the night breeze, all the survivors are accounted for except the Japanese tourist. Looking at his watch, the ship's officer decides he will organize a search party if the Japanese tourist has not been accounted for by the time dinner is over. The survivors eat nervously, speculating on their fate, wondering what might have befallen the Japanese. Then, with no warning, there is a furious noise and a rustle of leaves in a nearby glade. Abruptly the Japanese tourist appears, waving his arms, yelling. As he comes nearer, they all hear what he is yelling. "Supplies. Supplies. Supplies."

12. Dialog is a frequent victim of adverbial abuse. "If you come any closer, I'll shoot," she said menacingly.

13. In one of the volumes of his autobiography, Graham Greene castigated himself for using an adverb to modify a line of dialog. "I'm sorry," she said sadly.

14. A good litmus test is to question adverbial attribution, looking for a better way of expressing the thought or emotion without the adverb.

15. Even four hundred years ago on the Elizabethan stage, writers knew to keep their soliloquies down to a minimum, and even then there was often something going on in the background. Yeah, long speeches suck.

16. Because they are chosen in the first place for their difference from one another, characters should not sound alike when they talk.

17. Anne Proulx. Margaret Atwood. Alice Munro. Elmore Leonard. Richard Price. Tobias Wolff. Ed McBain. Dialoguers all.


Unknown said...

Adverbial abuse... hmmm... I shall have to watch the use of my adverbs from now on. I use them regularly to convey the tone of the character speaking... but in the example you provided it does sound redundant.

I would think the purpose of dialog in literature would be instinctual to authors, given the opportunity it presents to unveil the characters motivations... showing rather than telling and all, but I forget instincts aren't always present and skill sometimes has to be developed and honed, even in the most talented of people.

R.L. Bourges said...

A toss up between 9, 12 and 13. If I can have only one, I'll settle for 9.

x said...

I personally find it annoying when dialogue includes so many foreign words that I can't even grasp the meaning. Knowing no Spanish, I therefore include Junot Diaz in the annoying (and arrogant) cagegory. I know I am a minority of one. But as someone who has been forever expected to translate my Yiddish dialogue, I just resent when others don't feel equally compelled to make their dialogue accessible to an English-speaking reading in a supposedly English book. I mean, I might hear people speak Russian or Chinese in the street, but I am not listening for their "story."