Saturday, June 2, 2012

Reality: Failed Story


This aspect of the importance of dialogue is beginning to adhere to you like a recurrent dream.  Trouble is, it’s happening mostly during awake hours, such as classroom, workshop, and your own writing time.

The issue in point came to you again this morning when, after listening to two well-articulated drafts, one an opening chapter, the other a pivotal chapter, you found yourself on overdrive, urging both authors to ramp up their dialogue a notch or two, imagining themselves pushing the exchanges among their characters beyond the point where the author feels in a comfort zone and is, in fact, aware of feeling a bit uncomfortable, almost as though they were fearing they’d pushed the narrative a bit too far.

Don’t even think about keeping the material, you counseled.  You’re doing this because the responses of the characters will open doors in walls and other unlikely places through which unthinkable things can and will emerge.

You can and should ask yourself at this point whether this sense of awareness is for your students/clients or for you.  Now, as you write this, your belief is, yes, the awareness is for all concerned.  For some time, you’ve regarded dialogue as a shoving match.

Now, as you look at dialogue in this brighter, unfiltered light, you see each exchange even more charged with static electricity, wanting to spark across any emotional gaps.  Students and clients alike look at you in a way conveying to you the suggestion that they think you are somehow overstating the obvious.  One of them even said something as direct as, “Your point being..?”

At such moments, you find it effective to have a tangible example at hand.  You are aware of having none, but much in the manner of a jazz musician, taking off on a leisurely improvisation, you begin inventing a scene between two or more characters, supplying dialogue as though Neil Simon or Carl Reiner or Woody Allen had supplied lines for Your Show of Shows, where they all contributed.  Students and clients stop looking as though you’d departed from your senses; the glaze leaves their eyes and they begin nodding with you.

Perhaps this is the way to express your intention:  Always write dialogue beyond your comfort zone.  You are, after all, not writing to amuse yourself, you’re writing instead to evolve the you who is a writer, one who is supposed to be in touch with his characters, his time, his subject, his vision of his take on the world of reality.

Writing, dialogue in particular, is like trying to board the crowded C or D train from Grand Central at rush hour.  You have to elbow your way in and out in a way that is not so much the strong and aggressive against the weak and timid as it is the pulse and tidal surge of a crowded city.  You are neither nice and polite nor unthinking and rude.  Instead, you are urban folk in tense proximity with other urban folk.  Story is filled with thousands of seemingly invisible hair-triggers, waiting to be squeezed.

Like the C and D Trains, story is a convenient ride only in the most abstract of critical terms.  Story is neither nice nor polite; it is surely not convenient.  A significant problem finding the tone for a story emerges when the writer consciously or unconsciously seeks to model the activity after an event from real life.  Fraught as real life is, gory, sometimes frighteningly obscene, it is still no match for story because it is not supposed to be.

By its very essential nature, story is the null variable that makes it always more fraught, more dangerous, more tense by degrees than reality, the proof being that if story devolves to being lifelike rather than dramatic, it is by definition, failed story, which the reader will be able to sense soon enough, then exact the revenge of setting the story down for good, perhaps in spite of the return to tenseness and suspense that is to come.

You do not read story for niceness of content, nor do you write story to demonstrate your acute knowledge of manners and custom.  Although you prefer your stories to avoid overt head bumping, you are beside yourself with joy when your characters do not have to attend orientation programs focusing on reparations from protest demonstrations because most of these individuals are a step or two ahead of you.  They are not nice because they are dramatic, too actively engaged in a story to think of politeness.  If they were ever nice, they can return to that enviable mode right after the story is ended.


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