Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Man in the Ketchup-Stained Suit

Memo to Self:

Self, in order for dramatic narrative to have any chance at all for becoming charged, gripping narrative rather than Wikipedia-like information dump, the text needs a second, opposing presence, working against the main line.

Note the close parallel to counterpoint in music, where two themes are presented simultaneously, and where such composers as J.S. Bach had such an ear for it that he could make the second theme by reversing the progressions within the first.

In the text versions, you can consider using the setting or some necessary aspect, say dress or costume, as the second theme against which the first plays out.  Let's swing for the fence, in which case we use dress or costume as the counterpoint.  

Fellow shows up for a job interview or to initiate a romantic setting in which to propose the permanent arrangement of marriage to his lady friend.  Both are straightforward.  Depending on the writer's imagination, a job interview or proposal of marriage are at least polar in their possibilities, hired for the job or not, marriage proposal accepted or not.

Against these, let's say his suit is itchy, his shirt too small, his pants too tight at the waist.  Or let's say that, through an unforeseen accident, he has a conspicuous ketchup stain on his lapel.  In any of these cases, he is in effect, applying for a job against a background of some close-to-hand discomfort.

You like the potential in this set-up for one of your favorite types of interaction between characters, edgy dialogue spoken without any need for interior monologue.

"Ah, I see you've noticed my stain."

"I do my best to be non-judgmental at times like these.  You might say, look at the entire picture instead of being distracted by a mere Jell-o stain."

"Actually, it isn't Jell-o; it's ketchup.  You see, I was outside in the waiting room, when some fellow with a hot dog--"

"I'd have sworn it was Jell-o.  Raspberry."

"The thing is, I can't abide Jell-o. Wouldn't want you thinking this was a Jell-o stain."

"To me, Jell-o will always be the quintessential comfort food.  Reminds me of my youth.  Jell-o moulds were a significant treat back at the orphanage."

"Yes, well I hope you don't think--I mean, I understand the sociological implications of Jell-o."

This exchange is an example of what you like to think of as your signature dialogue, digressive from the matter at hand but subversive of one character's vision of him- or herself.

The B line or counterpoint could also be the restaurant the man takes his girlfriend and stained suit to, in order to propose marriage.  In addition to the stain, the restaurant is over air conditioned or significant for not being air conditioned at all; it is too crowded, too loud, or sepulchral in its projected loneliness.

The girlfriend is all poised to say yes, but the counterpoint piles weight upon weight upon the man in the ketchup-stained suit.  He tries his best to cope, to retain his poise, to project sans souci and leadership.  She may even see this to the point of appreciating it.  But we can't have it end well.  In fact, if "it" does end well, we shall feel cheated.  

When we embark on such a scene, in such an inhospitable setting, we know the outcome in advance, don't we?  We know she will wish to get herself out of that restaurant stat, rapidamente, ASAP, with all deliberate speed.  We also know that even as she is leaving, he is calling after her, insisting.  "It was a man with a hot dog.  You have to believe that."

And because, as readers, we are dramatic cynics, we know she will have the last words, called out over the din as she departs the restaurant and the scene, "People don't put ketchup on hot dogs.  People put ketchup on hamburgers."

This last observation is a delicious non sequitur cherry atop the banana split, a reminder that rational things may happen in Reality, but they get standing room only tickets for story.

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