Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Say It Isn't So

After you've spent some time investigating the turn-on's and turn-off's of your characters, gathering a sense of how they feel about things,  places, other persons in their life, and how they respond to strangers, you're ready to move on to an entire new level of intimacy regarding these individuals.  In a metaphoric sense, you're ready to move from mere mushrooms--succulent and flavorful as they are--to the world of truffles and morels.  You're ready to convey the regard, distrust, suspicion, even the social relationship of characters by the way they speak to one another.

Get out your dialogue hounds because we're about to do some serious digging.

Let's begin by asking you to put yourself into a letter-writing mode, the kind of letter you used to have to write by hand when you were thanking a relative for a gift, in particular if it was a gift you were not crazy about.  If you're of a certain age, this will be the kind of letter you used to tap out with your IBM Selectric typewriter, still excited by the memory of that type ball, bouncing along with you .  Now, of course, you can pick your design from a series of templates on MS Word or iPages, and personalize with your choice of typefaces.

There are six basic types of letters.  Don't worry, you're not going to have to write them, but thinking about each will give you a handle on dialogue that will reflect your mastery of one of the most difficult aspects of storytelling.

Letter Number One:  to a close friend, expressing sympathy, congratulation, or a desire to hang out

Letter Number Two:  to a superior at work, a department head or a dean, or a vice president, informing them of some work-related contribution or achievement you made

Letter Number Three:  to an elected official asking her to do something on your behalf

Letter Number Four:  to a literary agent you'd like to represent you

Letter Number Five:  to a lover, being frank and sincere in your admiration

Letter Number Six:  to someone who's been hitting on you and whose attentions you have no wish to encourage (pay attention to this because we'll soon be visiting it in full regalia)

If no one you'd not interested in encouraging has been hitting on you, then imagine a letter you'd write to a neighbor two or three houses away whose dog barks all day after they leave for work.

All six of these letters represent differing levels of intimacy, social and generational plateaus, and agendas of one sort or another, including the one to a superior at work where your goal is to accrue brownie points for a raise and promotion.  They represent communication with hoped for positive result.  Each is loaded with potential for text, subtext, and irony.  Even in your most intimate personal connections, you are being more than conversational.  You are perhaps afraid a dear friend is about to enter a toxic relationship, but know better than to come right out with that concern.  You are sending a love note because--well, a little nookie right now would set you up to take on the world.  Nothing disingenuous or dishonest about any of these transactions; they do reflect the nuanced plateaus of closeness or distance, the degrees of intimacy or lack thereof in the landscape of relationships.

When these transactions do leak into trespass, an entire level of agenda becomes the fox, sniffing at the chicken coop.  To see this in action, take a look at Act 1, Scene II of Shakespeare's Richard III.  Gloucester, who is on his way to becoming Richard III, delays the funeral cortege of Henry VI and his son, both of whom Gloucester admits to killing as he hits on Anne Neville, widow of Henry's son.  Anne has nothing good to say about Gloucester, referring to him all the while as thee and thou, even as he confesses to her that he killed her husband out of love for her.  In a bold move, Gloucester hands Anne his dagger so that she might kill him in retribution.  But she has no heart for the deed, still calling him thou.  Gloucester seizes his opportunity to press his ring upon her, which she takes.  And now, still wishing she knew his ["thy"] heart, she opens the floodgates of our concern for her by the simple act of switching from thee to you.

At the most basic level, your characters have talked their way into your story; something about them made you realize they could be counted on to say something memorable at the wrong time and, with luck, something forgetful at the right time.  

Why is dialogue such a big deal that literary agents and editors look to see how you handle it?  All you have to do is like capture some--you know--conversational idiosyncrasy for each character, right?

Thing is, you believe that, maybe you'd be interested in a deal on a chain of big box bookstores.  Dialogue is not conversation.  When did you ever hear a conversation that had story elements begging you for a dance?  What turned you on were arguments or obvious situations where it was clear the conversants were talking about two, maybe three disparate things.  Or maybe there were moments of obvious combustion:  "He wanted you to do what?"

Here's a little exercise to chew on.  From one of your favorite novels or short stories, pick a line of dialogue you enjoy to the point of relishing it.  Maybe you like it for its wit or its fresh take.  Maybe you like it because it's so expressive or revelatory.  Take it out in public; use it in conversation, and watch for the response.  Most people will just look blank if not outright puzzled. Try it with close friends and you'll get busted for trying out dialogue on them.



 Even when dialogue sounds conversational, there is agenda or subtext scratching around like a puppy wanting to get out for a walk.  Agenda, subtext, and irony thrive in dialogue, but they also haunt story like panhandlers in Wal-Mart parking lots.  We'll investigate them in the next chapter.  You'll have to cope with puppy's walk on your own.






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