Saturday, April 21, 2012


Whenever you come across a display of electrifying dialogue that seems to take over the story in ways that burn it into memory, you can’t help rethinking the time when you felt your own approach to dialogue was your strength.

At the time, what you considered dialogue was no such thing; it was conversation.  True enough, you had an ear for a turn of phrase, the occasional lapse into an ironic, literate commentary, the appropriate zinger.  But what you had was not what you thought or hoped.  If anything, what you had was banter or footnote to the story going on in the background—precisely where it should not be.

There have been many ah-ha moments related to your discovery of what dialogue is and is not, some examples being the most egregious misuse, even more unwieldy than your own, others hypnotic in the way each exchange caused the characters to step forth on the stage to claim his or her spotlight.

The most recent avalanche of effective, you might even say definitive dialogue comes from the television series, Justified, which comes from characters and circumstances developed by Elmore Leonard, who has evolved over the years of his vast productivity from what seemed to be the shadow lands of fiction, the Western.

How could a man with roots in Detroit write such convincing and satisfying fiction?  A simple answer is his use of dialogue, and we all know what William of Occam said about simplicity.  Universes, he said, must not be unnecessarily expanded.  To put it another way, the simplest solution is the best solution.  Persons have been saying that for years to the point where now, when you hear it spoken or think it yourself, it sounds like dialogue.

When David Simon, the executive producer of The Wire, decided to pull the plug on that remarkable series, so exquisite in its range and depth of characters and their issues, you despaired of having anything as cohesive available again on television.  You’ve come close in a few venues to being given an opportunity to teach a course on The Wire, causing you to revisit its construction and narrative flow in ways well beyond mere audience admiration.

Justified has the same sense of cohesiveness, beginning with a regionalism that implies a stratified and well-defined social culture, weaving a larger pattern of events in ways that are more organic and set in place than episodic.  Grudges die hard, relationships have ripple effects, agendas are often hidden under tarpaulin in the bed of an old pickup truck or buried in the gritty Kentucky soil.

The characters have been wound about the armatures of pure need and desire, an overlay of familial devotion and a sense of courtliness that barely misses being exaggerated.  You would not, someone asks of a character, shoot a man while he sits at a table with food in front of him, would you?  The answer, almost a parody of a Sir Walter Scott novel, is an order to stand up and move away from the table.

To be sure, Justified has two enormous attractions for you, the sure touch of Elmore Leonard’s editorial hand, embellished by the noir flavor and its resultant case of characters. There is also a third presence you hinted at a few moments ago.  This series, The Wire, and one or two others stand as literal and figurative novels because of their construction, their flawed characters, the realness and plausibility of the situations, and the sense that such thriving activity, although dramatic in its focused enhancement, happens about us.

This morning, in your Saturday writing workshop, you saw two powerful examples of how dialogue could and should replace authorial intrusiveness, bringing characters and their goals to the forefront, changing the possible outcome of story, moving the dramatic activity away from the sidelines of stage direction into actual explosions of activity from characters in which their movements demonstrated their goals and inner conflicts.

If you say it correctly, the exchange of dialogue becomes the acupuncturist’s needle on the corpus of the story, producing energy lines, tingles, reflexes.

Sometimes, when you experience an immediate, unexpected frustration, you find yourself saying, “Damn.”  In other cases, your responses are worse by a considerable margin.  Those cases are real life.  “Damn” or “Fuck” or anything you might consider in between, however much an explicative they are, are still conversation.  In drama, such moments call for dialogue or gesture or a combination of the two.

Listen for the potential irony.  Listen for the courtly exaggeration.  Listen for the desire to maintain pecking order or to bargain.


Listen to them.

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