Friday, August 9, 2013

Who's on, first?

Some years ago, you made an important discovery that had implications for your writing, your editing of fiction, and your teaching courses related to the writing of fiction.

Scenes with one character on stage alone tend to become fragile to the point of falling apart, losing their energy, running the risk of becoming boring.  Why?  Because the character has no where to go except into internal monologue or, if we're talking a play, a soliloquy.  To be or not, right?  With a few notable exceptions, characters alone are unlikely to be caught doing something they shouldn't, being somewhere they shouldn't be, or not doing what they'd set out to do.

Thus your calculus of dramatic energy was formed.  One or more characters, if properly directed, will produce at the least tension, perhaps actual and active suspense.  In some cases, one character, swarmed by a crowd or mob, is a significant dramatic moment.

This awareness caused a few adjunct observations to snap into place, notable among them the so-called buddy system, which, nearly as you are able to determine, had its start with the god, Dionysus, the principal character in Aristophanes' The Frogs, along with his slave, Xanthias. 

How the contemporary audiences must have enjoyed the near-heretical banter and dynamic between the two, with the slave having the upper hand, most of the way.  A modern casting of the roles that amuses you would be Anthony Hopkins or Peter O'Toole as Dionysus, and either Will Smith or Mos' Def as the slave.

Notable buddy pairs between The Frogs and now would include John Watson, M.D. and Sherlock Holmes, the comics, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, the Smothers Brothers, and by way of demonstrating the pairing is by no means gender specific, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Mary Livingston and Jack Benny, and that almost quintessential demonstration of how effective the buddy system is, Felix Unger and Oscar Madison.  

There is a wonderful chemistry in all these pairs, to the point where you suspect that had Sherlock Holmes been the chosen narrator for his adventures and exploits, the series would have died an early death rather than moving forward to immortality.  Watson was the perfect choice.  But Neil Simon nails the possibilities with an Odd Couple note left for Oscar on the refrigerator door by Felix, who signs the note with his initials, F. U.

This is the type of chemistry that informs all memorable dialogue, which is, after all, essential exchanges of information and misinformation between characters.  These exchanges are class-structured in The Frogs, where the audience is led to see how in many areas the slave has greater wit than his master, who is a god.  And look what Abbott and Costello did with the simple device in their famed baseball player names caused such memorable mischief. 

The following introduces the mischief in all its glory:

Costello: Look Abbott, if you're the coach, you must know all the players.

Abbott: I certainly do.

Costello: Well you know I've never met the guys. So you'll have to tell me their names, and then I'll know who's playing on the team.

Abbott: Oh, I'll tell you their names, but you know it seems to me they give these ball players now-a-days very peculiar names.

Costello: You mean funny names?

Abbott: Strange names, pet Dizzy Dean...

Costello: His brother Daffy.

Abbott: Daffy Dean...

Costello: And their French cousin.

Abbott: French?

Costello: Goofè.

Abbott: Goofè Dean. Well, let's see, we have on the bags, Who's on first, What's on second, I Don't Know is on third...

Costello: That's what I want to find out.

Abbott: I say Who's on first, What's on second, I Don't Know's on third.

Costello: Are you the manager?

Abbott: Yes.

Costello: You gonna be the coach too?

Abbott: Yes.

Costello: And you don't know the fellows' names?

Abbott: Well I should.

Costello: Well then who's on first?

Abbott: Yes.

Costello: I mean the fellow's name.

Abbott: Who.

Costello: The guy on first.

Abbott: Who.

Costello: The first baseman.

Abbott: Who.

Costello: The guy playing...

Abbott: Who is on first!

Costello: I'm asking YOU who's on first.

Abbott: That's the man's name.

Costello: That's who's name?

Abbott: Yes.

Costello: Well go ahead and tell me.

Abbott: That's it.

Costello: That's who?

Abbott: Yes.

This sample is classic instruction for the nature of much if not all dialogue in fiction because of the way it advances the premise of misunderstanding between two or more characters, its inherent frustration levels accelerating with every exchange to the point of combustion and closure.  The audience sees the dynamic as soon as the brief setup is in place, then becomes a part of the conspiracy against Costello, the more voluble and reactive partner, as Abbott dead-pans his way through the entire skit.

Story is accelerated frustration, sometimes enhanced by misunderstanding, other times abetted by the audience having reason to conclude that the vector of the story has two or more characters in seeming agreement, each convinced of his or her own understanding.

Thus this bit of closure for this time at bat:  Story is two or more characters entering a landscape with a purpose, each character convinced of the validity and necessity of his or her purpose.

You're not listening to me.

Of course I'm listening to you, and I agree with everything you said.

You agree that you're not listening to me.

That's not what I said.

You said you're not listening to me.

No, you said that.  I was agreeing with you.

You don't get the picture.

No, you're the one who doesn't get the picture.

Then how can you agree with me?

XANTHIAS, _his slave_ 

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