Friday, November 7, 2014

He said, She said.

7th November 2014

To begin at the beginning....

Every writer ought to have a house like this. It should be the law, that's what I say. This one belonged to Dylan Thomas, and no wonder it gave rise to such unearthly lines. I would have a house such as this right over the water. As Jung said, the human psyche gravitates towards water. I know mine does. It's primordial, our first home. And on this day of my birth, this is what I wish for myself: a good place to live and an even better place to die. Not that I'm there yet. There's much too much to get done, too many books to be published, too much to see (including the above house which is now a museum.) But in the end, in the very end, the spirit should pass out over the water. That is something I have no fear of.

And so to dialogue. The funny thing about dialogue both in literature and in film, is that it has to perform an amazing trick: it has to appear normal while being at the same time far from normal. It has to be doing a job, which in everyday living, of course, speech rarely does.

      "Did you get the teabags while you were out?"
       "I think I got the right ones. Which do you prefer?"
       "I used to think it was Tetley, but these days I prefer Yorkshire Gold. Which ones did you buy?"

And so on and so on.  This is the way people really converse, but if you filled a book with this kind of meandering drivel, you'd have your reader asleep in no time.
So speech in books and in film has to be condensed. It has to be pithy and move the story along. And it has to do all this while sounding real.

"You keep away from Curly, Lennie."
"Sure I will, George. I won't say a word."
"Don't let him pull you in, but if the son-of-a-bitch socks you, let 'im have it."
"Let him have what, George?"

Immortal lines from the best of all dialogue-writers: Steinbeck.

"When dialogue is right, we know," says Mr. Stephen King. "When it is wrong we also know--it jags on the ear like a badly tuned musical instrument."

"Bond. James Bond." This does not sound real, though it has become standard fare in books and film when people introduce themselves. I have never once in all my many years introduced myself as "McDougall. Claire McDougall," but in written dialogue you see it all the time.
Another thing you see too often in dialogue is people repeating phrases in a way they would never do in real life: "I will never get over this," he said. "I will never get over it."  If you heard anyone talking like this in real life, you'd think they were reading off a badly written script.
Dylan Thomas wrote in a converted garage just up the cliff from his amazing house. Every day his wife would lock him in it for four hours. She should have locked him in it for good. If he had lived until 2014, he would have been 100 years old.
"To begin at the beginning...." He hardly started. But he filled our hearts with beautiful soul crunching language. And none of it sounded in the least bit like speech.

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