Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Dramatic Intensity: "Shut up," he explained.

intensity in language--the use of italic, exclamation points, all-capital-letter words to emphasize dramatic points; the use of "very" and other intensifiers to visually signify emphasis.

Mommy doesn't like it when you do that.

Mommy wishes you would stop doing that.

Mommy is tired of having to remind you not to do that.

Mommy is very tired of your behavior.

Will you please stop doing that?

How many times do I have to ask?

Stop it.


I said, "Stop," damnit.

What is it you don't understand about shut the fuck up?

It is neither fair nor an intended slight to suggest that mothers alone are driven to the use of intensifiers in language. John Lardner, in a splendid reminiscence of his remarkable father, Ring Lardner, told of a time when the family was out for a Sunday morning drive, the auto being driven by father (RL) who was suffering the effects of last night's drinking spree with his newspaper chums. After a number of wrong turns, muffled curses, and roads being driven in reverse gear, one of the Lardner youth ventured to query, "Are we lost, Daddy?" To which the now classic reply, "Shut up," he explained.

It is encouraging to note that characters frequently blow their cool, over respond, lose composure, and experience other lapses of equipoise. How to represent these moments? The best way is through dialogue in context, which is to say with words, expressions, and accompanying gestures that do not require italic or exclamation point or all-cap lettering in order to convey the exasperation and/or frustration being experienced at the moment. The second best way is with some bodily response, the blink of the eyes, a tilt of the head, a flinch, a muffled grunt, a shift in stance, and yes, the sudden attempt to drive the human fist through the inhuman wall. The third best way is through an ironic combination of the first two, say pinching the bridge of the nose and saying, "I see." particularly when it is clear that the character doesn't see--not at all. Any other ways, such as italics or exclamation points or authorial intervention are "tells," clues poker players look for in their opponents, that the author doesn't know how to bring off the intensity or is afraid the reader won't get it without Las-Vegas-like displays of emphasis.

Imagine a spoken response to an incendiary disclosure of information. For instance: "I am very disappointed in your behavior." Now imagine an intensified response. "And I am very disappointed that you were so very disappointed in my behavior that you couldn't see the necessity for me to do what I did." The response obviates the need for such adverbs as "retorted defensively,"or "sneered sarcastically." The response is in what the characters say rather than the way the writer uses MS Word aps.

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