Sunday, November 27, 2016

Conversation with an About-to-Be-Published Student

Not too long ago, a student waited for class to end and her fellow students to leave before coming to you with the announcement that she could not bring herself to write dialogue along the guidelines you'd been suggesting. Your response was, in some ways along those very guidelines you'd put forth. "Why," you asked, "is that?"

"Because," she said, "that invariably gets characters arguing with one another." She sighed. "I know you don't like -ly adverbs and so I shouldn't have said 'invariably,' but every time I get to thinking of your guidelines, the characters seem to go off on one another."

"What's wrong with that?"

"What's wrong is, I can't stand it. Sometimes I cringe when I read my dialogue. It's so--so--"

"--so?"

"Confrontive."

You were going to say "Exactly," but under the circumstances, you decided to return to safer ground. "What's wrong with that?"

"I don't want stories where people argue. I want stories where people either get along or decide to avoid the places where they disagree."

"And you think," you said, sensing the opportunity for a teaching opportunity, "that the conditions you've described here help to define what story is?"

"Well," she said, then excused herself, knowing you have little regard for sentences beginning with "well," I--" her pause here caused you to think she was about to use another word you have little use for, "just," when used as a synonym for "only," as in, "I was only going to say--"  "I meant to say that I want my stories to feature resolution and reconciliation."

"Which are meaningless if they appear without prior confrontation or tangible signs of misunderstanding and disagreement."

"I'll have to--"

You were certain she was going to need to think the matter over, which she did not say, aware of your frequent admonitions to avoid verbs relating to thought, particularly in dialogue.  After a moment, she phrased it this way, "I'll see if I can find other ways to suggest wrestling with deep inner conflicts."

She was--and is--a lively, attentive student, who has a pronounced ability to convey her characters in some form or other of movement, either directly toward conflicting agendas or established conventions. About two weeks after this conversation, she once again waited until the other students had gathered their belongings and departed. In her hand was a small envelope, obviously an aspect of snail mail, thanks to the metered postage you saw in the upper righthand corner.

"Where?" you said.

"Where what?"

"Where did you place a short story?"

"How did you know I placed a short story?"

"Acceptance letters sent snail mail are always small, maybe three by five. Rejections come back in the SASE you sent with the story. Which of your stories was accepted?"

You could see the flush seeping through the defenses and into her cheeks, making their way as well into her forehead and down the sides of her chin.  "The one with all the confrontive dialogue."

"Important as dialogue is to a story, there is a good deal more to it," you offered.

"Yes, but--" She withdrew a small sheet of note paper. "--they were specific about liking the dialogue."

Under the circumstances, you wouldn't have said anything if she'd have said "they particularly liked the dialogue."  Even without trying, you can emerge sounding pretty much like an asshole, a fact that has some, but not an entire potential in your own awareness of dialogue versus conversation, and your own level of short-fuse patience.

"Sincere congratulations on placing your story. Now, given your attitude about confrontive dialogue, where does this leave us?"

"I could have done without that introductory clause."

"You mean, 'given your attitude about confrontative dialogue'?"

"You bet your ass," she said.

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