Friday, September 10, 2010

Dialogue: It Was the Best of Problems, It was the Worst of Problems

A client of yours who is a literary agent has asked you to work with a client of hers on point of view, telling you the writer seems baffled by it.  Another, quite different agent, has remarked to you more than once that his biggest problem in dealing with his clients is getting them to understand the nature of "beats," those moments of activity in a story, the literary equivalent of notes on a musical score, expression volition and duration.  A client who is a writer finds difficulty in expressing motivation, and yet another has problems distinguishing voice from style.

You sympathize with all these difficulties to the extent that you had to work your way through them to the point where you felt confident with them, where they neither intimidated you nor caused you to either under- or overestimate their importance.

And yet.

You still believe the single most important aspect to the early and intermediate writer is dialogue, which is not what people say to one another so much as it is how characters advance story through its accelerated impact upon them.  It is in effect the energy created between one character saying "Good morning" to another, only to be met with the response, "Not that cheery-dearie business again."  Or, "I love you," provoking the response, "I'm supposed to issue a get-out-of-jail-free on the basis of that, right?"

It is true that some short story writers are able to express an entire narrative without using a word of dialogue while at the same time causing you to believe you have heard conversations among the characters.  It is also true that Harold Pinter could get "dialogue" out of two characters who didn't speak a work but instead rattled or otherwise got "dialogue" out of the sounds they produced by holding their portions of the daily newspaper and turning pages or otherwise creating sounds that evoked the nature of their feelings through the silence surrounding them.

Dialogue is not only the imaginary conversations within a single character or a pair of characters, it is in its way An American Gothic of drama in the evoked volley and return of feelings set against the deeper, truer feelings of the individuals; it is the seemingly magical effect of what is being said, set against what is being felt.  Of course it is not magic.  It is drama.  It is dialogue.

This early into the twenty-first century, the great dramatic dialogue seems to surround the issue of whether there is or is not a god.  You have close friends and some students on both sides of the debate.  Your own take is that there is none, although that only matters to you because you do not always address it directly in your stories.  You have not polled your characters on whether they believe or not, although you suspect a smaller percentage of them believe than those who do not.  The dialogue is, you recognize, a useful subtext, an argument your characters have had off stage with those about them, thus the residue of their differing attitudes as they engage one another.  How do such characters behave, speak to one another?  How do they speak of any basic matters?

There are a number of individuals in reality for whom you have measures of love along with regard.  You love some of them in spite of your regard for them because this, too, is part of human nature.  You feel love from a number of persons.  A number of persons you have loved have died, their loss particularly haunting because of you awareness that they loved you in ways that at one time defined your connection to the world and to reality.  It is feasible that the time will come when all those who love you in that particular way will be gone from you except in memory, revising your sense of connection to what you think of as reality and the universe.

The effect this will have on your conversations and dialogue cannot be forecast nor measured just as anticipated grief can only be spoken of aslant as opposed to straight on.  You can predict that in the process of aging, persons show a tendency to be haunted by past events and by the ghostly memories of significant individuals in their life who have died.  These individuals in some form or other of denial or displacement carry on dialogue with ghosts.  Your mother, for instance, frequently told you as a kind of ironic aside that if there is such a thing as an afterlife, your father will have a great deal to answer for.  This glimpse of her, this memory of her speaking to you, helps define her at once at her strongest and best and as an example of her own felt vulnerability.  This is the stuff of dialogue.  This is the stuff you need to remember.

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