This week in Daily Themes, students had to write dialogue. The main lesson I learned, and tried to impart, is that dialogue is best with as little authorial intrusion as possible. This has become the norm in contemporary fiction, in part -- I don't doubt -- because of the influence of TV and movies. As readers we've grown impatient with some authorial know-it-all trying to cue us as to how we should take a statement, or trying to orchestrate how things are said. But it's also the fact that many writers these days are trained by writing programs and the beginning writer's awkward attempts to "be a narrator" are quickly jettisoned in favor of "just the talk, m'am." I found myself doing that too. Since it was "dialogue week," that was OK, but still -- at some point (unless one is writing plays or scripts) that pesky narrator persona is going to have to reappear and orchestrate talk with action and description and analysis and . . . the whole shebang.
A: So, you're saying that dialogue is best without a narrator?
B: "Best"? Well, not best, necessarily, but . . . in this case, certainly preferable.
A: And dialogue has to speak for itself?
B: Dialogue, as Elizabeth Bowen said, "is what the characters do to each other."
A: Do to each other? I thought it was what the characters say to each other.
B: Well, obviously it is that, but . . .
B: You have to think of words as actions -- or rather you have to think of dialogue as verbal action. The best examples were the ones in which some crux or "turn" or . . . it could be a silence, an avoidance, a confrontation, an outburst -- something happened in the discussion.
A: I get it!
A: I'm having an epiphany!
B: Something like that, but more subtle, obviously.
A: I know. But how subtle? What makes us notice the shift?
B: For instance, the introduction of a previously lacking irony.
A: Or sobs of despair, perhaps.
B: A loaded gun aimed at the first speaker.
A: But that would have to be narrated, wouldn't it?
B: What are you doing with that? Where did you get that gun?
A: It's not even loaded.
B: Nor is it really there.
A: And yet . . .
B: It would signal a shift, it would concentrate the power in the relationship.
A: You could shoot me, in other words.
B: In other words, shoot you.
A: A pause.
B: Well, I also noticed that in reading a dialogue between two voices, the reader naturally sympathizes with one speaker or the other. That the dialogue is not only what the characters do to each other, it's something the characters do to the reader. They assert themselves almost independently of the narrator.
A: The dialogic, or something like that?
A: The characters take over the narrative. Six Characters in Search of an Author, kinda thing.
B: You've been here before.
A: So what do we do now?
B: Wait for Godot.
A: Shouldn't literary reference be kept to a minimum? Doesn't that intrude an authorial presence into what is ostensibly a naturalistic dialogue?
B: Naturalism is dead.
A: But so is stylization.
B: Granted. The best overheard dialogue this week may well have been: Are you hearing the voices now?
A: That has potential.
B: But no one gave me an IM dialogue this year.
A: The law of non sequitur.
B: A basic right. The escape valve. But about that crux: it's where someone departs from the script. It could also be an unguarded moment. Facing down the barrel, so to speak.
A: Assuming such a thing could happen.
B: Assuming you'd know it if you saw it.
A: So . . . is this getting personal?
B: More like personally relevant?
A: I can live with that.
B: Assuming you have a choice.
A: Well, whatever. g2g