Sunday, February 1, 2015

Q and A with Real Questions and Provocative Answers

Questions put to one character by one or more other characters become the dramatist's aly and the reader's best friend.  They force us to consider the direct, confrontive nature of dialogue, encourage us to see through behavior--which is a polite term for motivated action--and into the basic level of drama, which is that the front-rank characters believe in the absolute correctness of their agenda.

"What do you think you're doing?"

"Are you serious?"

"You think you can get away with this?"

Each question, in its way, suggests multitudes of stories, is in fact a story in its own right.  Each goes beyond a mere what ?  Each  question is voiced  on its way to a direct implication. There is some question, if not suspicion, about an action in the immediate past.  Or there is the elephant-in-the-living room presence,  suggesting a discovery about an action that had been kept hidden.

Neither of these possibilities, "You'd better come clean," or "Confession is good for the soul" suffice.  They are not questions; they are barely at the state of dialogue in the first place, although a skilled actor can deliver these lines with something suggesting the necessary tension or pressure a story needs to keep running.

Look at the difference between those statements and "How long do you think you can hold out?" and "Won't you feel better after you've told us everything?"

Well thought-out questions can be regarded as high-velocity ammunition, with the capacity to pierce the armor of denial, defensiveness, or some kinds of smart ass repartee.  The immediate goal in constructing the effective dramatic question is to provoke much more than a one-word answer, "No," or "Yes," or the sass-back response of "So you say," or "According to whom?" which is nice because it is the immediate challenge of the significant question,answered with another question.

The reader wants the equivalent of sword fighting, Erroll Flynn, his fencing foil clanging against the epee of his opponent, while the two move about a room or staircase.  Good as such things are, they can only last for a few moments, to make the point.  If they go on too long without result, the reader grows bored, for all the lunging and thrusting.

Better to consider the right questions having the effect of that grand poet/swordsman, Cyrano de Bergerac, who is able to improvise a poem while sword fighting, and then--"As I end the refrain--thrust home."  Whereupon, completing the poem, he runs his opponent through, wipes his blade on his victin's tunic, then departs.

A good question--one challenging some action the reader knows about or has actually seen--provokes a riposte, an answer that becomes another question.  Voila, in one single exchange, we have allayed the possibility of conversation, which at its worst could descend into the theoretical, the philosophical, dreadful sense of the Socratic, which is one thing for the classroom, but not a practical design for a story.

You have to exercise caution when you set your own characters to the task of challenge and response because your characters do tend to ironic discourse.  To the provocative question, "Just who do you think you are?" a character of yours might, indeed has, responded, "Who are any of us, really?"

A writer you much admire, Tobias Wolf, has produced a short story, "Bullet in the Brain," in which the lead character is a thoroughly unlikable book critic, Anders, who " couldn't get to the bank until just before it closed, so of course the line was endless and he got stuck behind two women whose loud, stupid conversation put him in a murderous temper. "  See?  Already we don't like him.

Within a few paragraphs, Anders is losing more of his temper and the bank is now being hit by a group of robbers, one of whom says, " 'Keep your big mouth shut!' the man with the pistol said, though no one had spoken a word. 'One of you tellers hits the alarm, you're all dead meat. Got it?' "

Anders, being Anders, says " 'Oh, bravo, Dead meat.' He turned to the woman in front of him. 'Great script, eh? The stern, brass-knuckled poetry of the dangerous classes.' "

The title of the story pretty well tells us what's in store for Anders, but while he is meeting his fate, look at his dialogue and the way questions propel the story to the kind of combustion you refer to when you speak of the unthinkable, come to past, which you like a good deal more than pigeons, coming home to roost.  Something about that word, "unthinkable," that makes you wish to reach out toward it, identify it, and fit it into the drama of your story.

Keep those questions coming in.  Then look at them with care to make sure they are provocative enough to spur the real horse in the story, dialogue.



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