Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Converse Conversation

Dialogue is a siren's song leading the story teller into the temptation of trying to find it in the way characters speak as opposed to placing it directly at the roots of how they act.

For some years, you listened carefully, working to capture on the page what you heard out there in such realities as the coffee house, the workplace, even the classroom.  As a consequence, your dialogue reeked of authenticity but conveyed boredom in conversational form.  You in effect gave voice to boredom, thinking it would be interesting if it sounded real but dooming it from the get go for that very reason.

Since those days of conversational characters, over-explained and linear story lines, you have with the fervor of a circuit-riding preacher advocated the view of dialogue in which it is specifically:

not conversation.
not really American English.
not a tool for explaining the story.
not a platform for addressing the reader.
not the author speaking to the reader in any way.

With these embargoes in mind, you have moved closer to the interior of story telling rather than story by description.  You are pleased to be in this position because among other things, you have wanted to be here without being able to articulate the mechanics of why you wished to be here.  It was somewhat like being sympathetic with your need to involuntarily shout ouch or worse, when you hit your thumb with a hammer.

Understanding what characters want is a major step forward; so is what you understand to be subtext, the difference between what a character actually feels while saying what is actually said at the time.  These two elements have moved you closer:  (1) awareness of what the character wants, and (2) the sensitivity to the fact of the character being caught in the bind of having to speak to appearances--the Social Contract, if you will--while feeling indifferent or oblique to it much less in hearty endorsement.

In an exchange with your literary agent yesterday in which she told you of a friend who'd been fired as editor in chief of a publishing house because of his irreverent behavior toward a martinet of a publisher, you were reminded of a similar situation in which you, as editor in chief, were fired because of your relationship with the publisher.  The man who fired you was a significant force behind your learning the inner life of dialogue.  Occasionally one meets such persons in life and while they may seem a puzzling quantity at first, they merit close attention not only in what they say but in ways their behavior speaks to who they are and what they want from others.

As you noted to your agent, "Your friend the late Pockell reminds me of  how I 'left' my ed in chief gig at the scholarly publisher.  The  Publisher was a short, martinet of a man whose behavior taught me much about writing dialogue."  You went on to recall a particularly memorable exchange with him, EHB:

"You didn't tell me you went to Yale."
"Because,"  I said, "I didn't."
"You wear J. Press.  Only men who attended Yale wear J. Press."
"But I didn't attend Yale."
"And you wear striped ties with houndstooth jackets.  You dress Yale."
"An accident.  I have no idea what people wear at Yale."
"How do you rationalize not wearing Brooks Brothers?"
"I don't rationalize it.  I simply don't do it.  With the exception of one shirt, an emergency purchase, I tend not to like Brooks Brothers clothing."
"Odd.  Very odd.  You appear neat in spite of it."
When members of my staff saw us together, they would say loud enough for me to hear it, "Well, there's the long and short of it."


Such exchanges remain in memory and help forge the structural nature of exchanges of dialogue, which is a kind of ladder by which the characters reach higher emotional levels of involvement with the cosmos of story.

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