Thursday, May 31, 2012

Politeness: The Enemy of Story


You are swimming about your business, engaged in a mind-at-rest round of lap swimming, or on an evening stroll, mind equally detached from you or perhaps even the more accurate, you are detached from your mind, functioning on auto-pilot.

Something mechanical malfunctions.  A leg cramps.  Your head has an unexpected meeting with the low-hanging branch of a tree.  More than once, back in your running days, you unthinkingly ran into a parked car with enough force to send you deciding for the ground rather than remaining standing.

What you say at such times and how you say it, be it ever so tense, is your voice, a quintessential you, reflecting in appropriate vocabulary and articulation or their appropriate lack thereof your voice.

You do not always speak in the HD version of your voice. sometimes diluting it with deferential or quasi-humorous costuming to reflect such cultural programs as manners, social contracts, and respect profiles.

Writing in your true voice makes you by degrees less diplomatic but often more open and friendly sounding than the curmudgeon you suspect to be lurking in the shadows.

By means of a calculus you do not find overly difficult, you believe speech is voice in ways conversation or discourse is not.  Dialogue is the Ikea furniture of story; you must assemble it yourself in order to get it to work as it ought.  When it does work, it is always a tad out of line or one leg is less long then the others, tilting precariously at the precise moment when it should shut up and listen.

Somewhere between vectors of argument and sarcasm, dialogue is the fuel of story, each exchange upping the odds, increasing the tension, turning up the heat to the point where the crucible that is story boils over, with no regard for where the detritus lands or what kind of mess it leaves.

Voice, then, must not be too polite if the story is to succeed.  The narrative flow may seem civil enough, but there are charged warnings of something about to erupt, someone about to announce they’ve had it with things as they are or with being treated as they have, to say nothing at all of not having been recognized for some potential or admirable quality.

We tend to admire dialogue where Character A not only appears to be telling Character B things Character B might not wish to hear, Character B has rebuttal beyond such playground tropes as “Says who? or “You and what army?”

Story should be—often is—like those days gravid with static electricity and threats of cloudburst, charged, heavy, even a bit menacing although you can’t quite put your finger on why.
Story, even long story, even War and Peace story, does not have time for gradual build-up.  You must get it from the outset because if you do not, you will be looking for places to set the story down or for the on/off switch on the Kindle or iPad.

Sometimes the most unlikely characters are the ones who are most apt to throw the fraught cautions of dialogue to the wind, perhaps in realization that they were on a loser’s course, headed for collision or, worse, being lost without the loss being noticed.

Sometimes, in the midst of a group, you withdraw to listen, imagining the possible avenues which might grow, were a particular line of emotion to be introduced.  Your favorite moments in conversations and stories arrive when it becomes apparent two separate issues are being argued and each side is growing more agitated over the fact that the opponent is not staying on point.

If there has been serious drinking, this boiling point arrives, then comes to a peak moments before the characters become maudlin in the sentimentality of their regard each for the other.  The wife will take a pointed look at her husband, wanting him to leave—now.  The husband will be thinking they should have left half an hour ago, before things reached this point, where it is now a half hour too late.  Someone’s feelings will be hurt.  There will be remorseful telephone calls later.  Someone will become maudlin about a Jack Russell terrier.

Voice is the drunk in the bar, wondering if he can have one to go when closing time has been announced.  It is the next line of dialogue after, “What do you mean, we’ve drunk up everything in the house?” Voice is the realization that things have not only changed and can never return to their point of origin; no one can remember what the point of origin was in the first place.

Timid writers lose sight of the fact that confrontational speech brings the storylines out into the public, away from the predictable, into the turn of metaphor we all wish narrative to be.  The modern story appears to have come from a conversational kettle boiled over, from another planet, from another galaxy, yet remarkable in its resemblance to our own.


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