Friday, September 4, 2009

Some Scary Thoughts about Dialogue

Much has been said about the role of dialogue in its relationship to advancing story while simultaneously offering forth clues about the agendas and personality of the characters involved in the story. 

Not enough has been said about the role of dialogue in the critical and ongoing definition of the writing self, that focused agglomerate of conflicting forces to the point where it is almost worth calling it TBS--The Balkanized Self.

Dialogue in this case becomes conversation between the critical, thinking aspect of self and the visceral, emotional receptors.  As a guiding principal, consider how, as we move outward from childhood, through the rocky shoals of puberty and into overt sexual agendas to complicate our foraging, hunting and gathering selves, the causes of what we consider nightmares morph from dragons and ogres, and monsters into more casually encountered mammals, possibly even persons not unlike our very self.


The menace enters through the side wings of the ordinary.  Perhaps a rat or spider here and there, but most nightmares could well be out-takes from "I Love Lucy" reruns or even, heaven forfend, "Happy Days."  The factor that pushes these dreams into the genre of nightmare as opposed to quotidian dream is the emotional equivalent of the sound track, the resident emotion.  

This is one reason Stephen King is so good, which is to say scary; he particularizes the fearful lurking in the ordinary.  He does it with a rather extensive-but-ordinary vocabulary, via cadence of his lines, and sometimes through the merest questions:  "What's that?" or "Did you see that?" or "I can't believe what I just saw."  

The emotion is brought in sideways, through subtext and inference, through evocation, which comes from the senses, the scary way scary things smell, the taste in one's mouth when one is frightened (and thus the question, Does having a dry taste in one's mouth contribute to the emotional undertow of a nightmare?), the way things sound.  (How, for instance, does a buzzing fly sound when it is in your room, scoping out its next landing site, as opposed to when it is trapped in a spider's web and about to become the prix fixe dinner of said spider?)

An ordinary dream encounter is just that--ordinary.  In a true nightmare, there is the enhanced presence of one or more emotions, playing on the sense of danger, fear, frustration, impending menace.

Pay some attention to a scene in a dramatic movie, asking yourself when you ever heard the sound tract using a bassoon as a suggestion of menace.  Or perhaps a moment intended to be humorous, punctuated by tense, sawing violins.  It is the emotion subtext that informs the scene of the scariness.

The dialogue between reason and emotion informs us of how we can play the ordinary, the quotidian for its scary, Stephen King effects.  We need both to keep the scene on even keel, from foundering in the self-induced sea of the melodramatic, with the focus where it belongs, on the apparently normal, set to play against a background brimming with fear of falling or of failure or discovery.

When we have come to recognize this delicate balance between the reasonable and the unthinkable, we may metaphorically ask it to dance, try it out on the page, bring the memorable nightmare to a life that can be felt across continents and, of course, ages. 

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