Saturday, August 14, 2010

When first we practice to discuss

When individual characters in a story converse, does their dialogue have to give the effect of an argument between them?

The simple, direct answer to that rhetorical and simplistic question is yes.

Even when characters are in accord, there is an ever present sense of a word or two being misunderstood, overly emphasized, felt or construed in some ironic or cynical way you know will ultimately lead to explosion.  Yeah, right; you're doing it because you love me.

When Character A makes unblinking eye contact with Character B, then says, "I see what you mean." a portion of our reader sensitivity is already leaping ahead to wonder if Character A does in fact see what Character B means.  Thus the seeds of anticipation and ambiguity are broadcast, the former setting in our minds a scene in which Character A will come to some kind of accounting for having with such emphasis seen what B means.  As well, we are drawn to the reality of our own communications with those about us and the comparatively low rate of satisfaction we have.  Some of us writers are even more likely to wince, having experienced editorial queries on our own works, notations asking us if A really intended that observation.  Truth to tell, it is a world of anticipations being driven off cliffs and of ambiguous fates out there.

Look at it this way:  when two or more characters converse it is indeed not mere conversation of the sort you are likely to have among a group of civilian (non-writer) friends; it is instead an enquiry board or an arbitration panel or a grand jury, trying variously to effect a cause, an agreement, or the extent of guilty participation.

Magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post, Colliers, and Liberty, from the heyday of short fiction would tend to view the simple phrase, "Honey, I'm home" as a simple announcement from the head of the family, in from an energetic, productive day at work, ready for some quality time with the kids before supper, a Kool-Aid metaphor for the Great American Dream being firmly in place.  Later in the same century, along comes Playboy in cynical riposte to the point where "Honey, I'm home," produces another reaction altogether, "Geez, I thought you said he never left the office before six," and the even more cynical "Will you please shut up and remember why you're here!"  Some might argue about the use of the exclamation point there; it was included to indicate the speaker's ardent wish to business at hand to be concluded rather than interrupted, thus occupying even more time before a potential confrontation might emerge.

Among the words you use to describe the resident emotions of scenes is edge.  You have seen plays written by Harold Pinter in which even though there was no dialogue being exchanged between the persons on stage, the mere rattling of a newspaper became dialogue, implying impatience, anger, irritation.

Dialogue is the unseen mosquito buzzing about in the room, the static electricity that sparks from the characters' clothing as they sit or stand; it is sexual tension and/or suspense or suspicion or resentment repressed at some degree of effort.  In David Lodge's remarkable novel, Deaf Sentences, it is a man losing his hearing, constantly misreading homophones, getting progressively more muddled as individuals close at hand increasingly shout at him.  However it sounds in appearance--"Did you sleep well?"--it is a world of implication in its own right, a reference to something in the past or some ongoing symptom that if not treated will become, that does become epidemic. Dialogue is the unthinkable, come to stay for a nice, long visit.

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