Tuesday, April 29, 2014

What Say You?

What characters say in fiction is quite clear to readers, but emerges as something of a bafflement to individuals at the lower rat tail of the learning curve.

This observation is based on your observation as an editor, where you had to read many proposals, as an instructor, where you were morally obligated to read submissions all the way through, and as someone who was all too painfully on the rat tail.  You often spent hours trying to find artful ways to lead up to significant matters, in particular if those significant matters had some taint of the painful or hurtful about them.

Characters speak to their agendas or around them, lest their hidden motives be discovered.  They speak with a great moral authority or in an obsequious deference to someone with some kind of power over them.  Some characters in certain cultures have ways of showing respect or deference.  Our culture often encourages this degree of respect, opening the door for what has been called subtext, which is to say saying on thing while feeling quite another.

Throughout the centuries, a small group of authors have grasped this divide between what is said and what is thought.  You are not surprised to find these authors among your favorites, speaking to the issue of dialogue in the first place.

Sometimes, when you think about how you first saw dialogue, you are forced to cringe.  You took a fierce kind of pride in what you thought dialogue was, to the point of considering it your strength.  Interesting characters, saying interesting things.  The problem was that your characters were not always as interesting as you thought and to make matters worse, the things they said were not dialogue, they were conversation pieces.  Even now, at the thought of it, you feel a slight tingle in your cheeks.

Dialogue is not conversation.  No wonder you had to spend so much time nudging your characters' conversations toward dialogue.  "Oh, and by the way--"  or, "Speaking of crimes of passion, you didn't happen to have killed your husband, did you?"  No, those are exaggerations, although you can and do argue that story is exaggeration, dialogue is exaggeration, and so are characters exaggerations.  All these elements, story, dialogue, and characters, are exaggerations of what persons are in Reality, their inner furniture rearranged to make them fly off the page with a steroidal intensity.

Story removes wasted moments from Reality, supercharges it, causes the universe in which it is set to begin the metaphorical snapping of its fingers to get all the wasted details and descriptions out of the way.

Early on, Act I, Scene 5, when Hamlet is summoned to the roof and battlements of Elsinore Castle to greet the ghost who had been appearing at midnight, we get the sense of his subtext when the ghost speaks:

  HAMLET 
                                   Speak; I am bound to hear.

      GHOST 
   So art thou to revenge, when thou shalt hear.

      HAMLET 
    What?

      GHOST 
 I am thy father's spirit, 
Doom'd for a certain term to walk the night, 
And for the day confined to fast in fires, 
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature 
Are burnt and purged away. But that I am forbid                                  To tell the secrets of my prison-house, 
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word 
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood, 
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres, 
Thy knotted and combined locks to part                                                 And each particular hair to stand on end,                                               Like quills upon the fretful porpentine:                                                       But this eternal blazon must not be 
To ears of flesh and blood. List, list, O, list! 
If thou didst ever thy dear father love—

      HAMLET 
O God!

      GHOST 
Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.

      HAMLET 
Murder!

      GHOST 
 Murder most foul, as in the best it is; 
 But this most foul, strange and unnatural.

      HAMLET 
 Haste me to know't, that I, with wings as swift 
 As meditation or the thoughts of love, 

 May sweep to my revenge.

This is done so well that we can almost hear Hamlet's inner thoughts, the things real persons say to themselves at such times.  Oh, fuck.  Murder, is it?  I knew something didn't seem right.

I'm on it, Dad.  I'm on it.

Dialogue conforms, even betrays our worst fears, our most emphatic insecurities, our overwhelming self-delusion.  How could such things possibly come from conversation, which in its way is rhetoric in quotation marks, although even our conversation has about it the glorious potential for two or more persons to be talking about two disparate things yet believing they are in some sort of agreement.

Barroom brawls are often examples of circumstances where two otherwise unwilling combatants have gone to relax, have a few drinks, perhaps watch some sporting event on TV, or simply engage in friendly conversation.  The beer or booze has put one edge on, taken another off.  Unquantifiable, the number of brawls that began with no overt intention to get into a brawl, the combatants instead, taking umbrage at their interpretation of something said or unsaid.

Dialogue is often barroom brawl, on occasion without the booze.  What characters say to themselves and one another are assertions of agenda, goal, intent, the equivalent of a schoolyard shoving match.

Dialogue is your literary agent, asking you when you are going to write a book on dialogue and you, replying that it will have to wait until you finish your current project on character, then get to the novel she's been pestering you to get back to, and you reminding her of this, and her reminding you how nonfiction at the moment is more likely to draw readers than fiction and you not caring so much if it sells or not so long as it is honest, effective information, presented with enough irreverence to make readers suspect it might well be true.




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