Saturday, December 8, 2012

One

Now that you've vented some spleen about beginning stories or novels with the word "it," or, in fact, beginning any sentence anywhere with that word, another candidate bobs to the surface, reminding you how you've had "it" in for this word as well.

The word is "one."  The mere thought of the word in this context has you wincing at the memory of times you've begun essays and reviews with what you've come to regard as "the one trope."  The wince is for the mischief "one" can wreak on a paragraph,how it sends you forth,not so much enthused about the topic at hand or even the sense of brio or outrage or downright bile you have to fuel your cholers, as you are treading on the thin wire of cliche.

Regard, if you will, the mischief already inherent in an opening such as "One of the possible outcomes..."  This approach is doing to your paragraph, your essay, your idea what Mitt Romney did when he "confessed" to having transported a dog on the roof of his sports utility vehicle.

When you see such tropes in action, you hit a speed bump, causing you to ask yourself, "What are some of the other possible outcomes?"  How about, "One thing is sure...?"  What things are not sure?  There is also a one approach you see with some regularity in fiction.  "One night..."  This is often used as an example of a character breaking a pattern:  "One night, Mary decided to change the rout of her nightly walking of her dog."  You appreciate the attempt to show patterns of behavior, but you also appreciate how this particular use introduces a glib, uncertainty or, worse, a sense of generality that takes you with some immediacy out of the narrative.In other words, one joins it in proving more distraction than specificity, drawing the reader's attention from the focal point.  When you see that you have used the one approach to a draft, you are reminded again of all the things at stake in the precarious business of communication.

Our English cousins have another irritating use of one, substituting it for the self.  One doesn't like to be reminded of this formal and distant sounding approach to speaking about the self.  Fact is, one winces at the use, fearful you might drop your guard and refer to your own self as one.  One what, you might well ask.

Discoveries of usage such as these in your own work tend to get you brooding, pausing from what you are doing in order to make a pot of coffee, using deliberate measurements, taking all the steps you know to take with the equipment at hand, including replacing the batteries in the devices that froths the milk you microwave in order to provide a close approximation of the latte you are accustomed to when out of the house and out on the town.  This is part of a ritual in which details--even the smallest--matter.

A single word such as an it or a one can send a well-intended sentence veering across the lane lines, causing its neighbors to swerve, initiating the potential for wide-scale mischief.

When you put the matter to a test, stunning, entrancing exchanges of dialogue, be they in a Harold Pinter play, an Elmore Leonard or George V. Higgins novel, or the gritty noir confrontations of the better television dramas, work because they remind us readers and viewer audiences that what we hear on a day-to-day basis is conversation.  Dialogue does not play in Reality nor does conversation play in story,

Dialogue is our best chance for being understood in story.  Conversation is often a risky and rickety business.

You have to be more vigilant in Reality, if only to keep the communication muscles in story supple and at the ready.  One cannot let one's guard down, even for a moment, can you?

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