Friday, July 30, 2010

Letters to a Young, Middle-Aged, or Geezer Writer, XXIV

There is an order of dramatic events in story that at first blush may seem to come at whim, either the whim of the characters or of the writer.  This order has its origins in what the major character wants and how this character behaves in service of bringing these wants to resolution.  Each time that character appears in a scene, he or she brings expectations relative to the final outcome.

All characters come into a scene with some degree of expectation, perhaps dread or anticipation, perhaps even curiosity.  A character without some tangible expectation has no business in a particular scene.  It is literally enough for you to say John, a minor, minor character, who will be in the scene, dreads the scope of the scene which could be say a faculty meeting or other arrangement where individuals tend to talk at great length about themselves as opposed to the agenda for the meeting.  John has, through his dread of the coming meeting, bought his way in.  Everything John says will reflect his being here under a measure of duress-regret-unwillingness.

This vision of characters having an expectation in a forthcoming scene is the basis for what they say, which is what dialogue is.  If you don't know what a character is doing in a scene, that character will not sound convincing, but even more to the point, will not sound as though he or she knows why you've got him there at that moment.

Dialogue is not conversation, not even when the characters are conversing.  Some expectation or misinterpretation or misunderstanding is waiting close at hand to pounce.  In the better scenes and exchanges of dialogue, characters may become so eager or frustrated or preoccupied that they reveal/betray some hint of their true agenda.

When I was a low-level employee at the night office of The Associated Press, nestled in a corner of the Los Angeles Times building, there was a sign in place at every reporter's desk.  It read:  "There has never been a better verb than said."  This adage can well apply to fiction as well; said is a neutral word, one the reader takes for granted unless it is inelegantly or inexpertly repeated to the point of distraction.  Elements of story such as dialogue may be used to create a relevant effect, but think about this:  the best effect of all in story is the plausible sense of story, a sense we take in the same way we take in breath as we read.  We do not need someone to explain to us why we breathe any more than we need someone to explain to us what story is and what it means.

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