Fred puts down the story and whistles softly. “That was a real tour de force,” he says. “The whole thing was nothing but one person speaking.”
“Did you notice that we not only didn’t have to use quotation marks, we didn’t have to use tag lines either?”
Fred looks worried. He clears his throat and squints at the screen.
“Something wrong, Fred?”
“Okay,” he says, blushing, “what’s a tag line?”
“A tag line is a couple of words or a phrase that tells you who is speaking. The simplest and least obtrusive tag lines are ‘he said’ and ‘she said,’ or minor variations, like ‘she replied’ or ‘he asked,’ as in this conversation between a man named Horace and a woman named Gail”:
”Hello,” he said, “my name’s Horace. What’s yours?” he asked.
“Hi,” she replied, turning in her chair to look at him. “I’m Gail Adams.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Horace said. “I’ve been watching you for about an hour.”
Fred looks thoughtful. “That’s kind of blah, it seems to me. Can’t you jazz that up a bit?”
“Sure,” the Author replies, “but it’s best to keep things simple. Using adjectives, adverbs, and fancy verbs to describe tone of voice or show what’s going on just gets in the way of the action and characterization. This is what can happen”:
“Hello,” he croaked nervously, “my name’s Horace. What’s yours?” he asked with as much aplomb as he could muster.
“Hi,” she squeaked uncertainly, turning in her chair to look at him. “I’m Gail Adams,” she said blushingly.
“Pleased to meet you,” Horace declared. “I’ve been watching you for about an hour,” he offered with a quaver in his voice.
Fred nods. “I see what you mean. The dialogue looks sort of amateurish, too – stilted and forced. What’s the reason for that?”
“It’s called ‘author intrusion.’ The wish of a modern author generally is to create the illusion of reality, to make the reader forget he or she is reading a story rather than living it. Therefore, an author tries to hide himself, to make the story seem as natural as possible. Adjectives and other sorts of descriptions tend to remind the reader that somebody’s controlling his or her interest.”
“But can’t that scene be jazzed up another way,” Fred asks, “and still keep the action and characterization going?”
In medias res
“Sure. You can even start in medias res.”
“What in blazes does that mean?” Fred is scowling again. “Talk about fancy words!”
“Well, once in a while you have to use writers’ jargon,” the Author says. Clearly annoyed, he glares at Fred. “It means ‘in the middle of things,’ and that’s where you’re supposed to start a narrative, so as to get the action going and the reader involved. In fact, here’s that same scene as it was originally written as the beginning of a short story:
“Gail Adams,” she replied. “And yours?”
“Horace. I’ve been watching you for about an hour, and I finally couldn’t help approaching you. Forgive me.” He sat down and put his cup of coffee on the table. She was beautiful.
“That really does get things going!” A look of admiration has replaced boredom in Fred’s eyes. “And Horace never even asks his question – it’s been asked before the story begins. Not bad! Not bad at all! You’re even beginning to characterize them. The only description I see,” he pauses to look over the story opening again, “is the predicate adjective ‘beautiful’ in ‘She was beautiful.’ She ‘keep it simple’ is the watchword, right? At least so far as tag lines go.”
“Right. Adjectives and adverbs are the mark of the amateur. Let the characters do their thing and the narrative move right along. Don’t slow it down.”
“Another thing I notice,” Fred says, still looking at the monitor, “is how fast the scene moves. But you don’t always want the scene to move that fast, do you?”
The Author sits back and stretches. “Certainly not. Some scenes require a fast pace. So fast sometimes, in fact, that you don’t want tag lines to appear at all, and you don’t want to slow the dialogue down even with other kinds of writing, such as mood-setting or authorial characterization.”
“Who writes like that?”
“Well, John O’Hara did it in several of his novels including Appointment in Samara. Here’s a passage in which Julian is speaking with Caroline – and let’s make a note to talk about this again when we get to a point where we can discuss dialect”:
He started the car again. “Hyuh, baby,” he said. “What were we talking about? Had we finished with Chuck?”
“What’s the mattah, honey sugah lamb pie, what’s the mattah you all?”
“Listen, Ju. Listen to me, will you?”
“Listen to you? Why, Mrs. English, one of the most attractive features of the Cadillac is the minimum of noise in the motor. Just let me show – “
“No. don’t be funny.”
“What’s the matter? Did I do something wrong? Did I say something? Christ, I thought we were getting along fine.”
“We were, but something you said worried me. See, you don’t even remember saying it.”
“What did I say?”
“When you stopped the car. when you got out to fix the chain, you said something about you were going to fix it now, while you were sober.”
“Oh,” he said.
“As if – “
“I get it. You don’t have to draw a map.”
“How’s that for fast-paced?”
“Okay,” Fred says, “but how about a little contrast now. How can you slow it down?
“We can try a little Christopher Isherwood, who was both a playwright and a novelist. Here’s how he wanted a rather slow scene in his novel The Memorial:
“What do you think of it?”
“I think it’s absolutely marvellous,” she’d say, beaming super-gratitude at him, as though he’s written book music and was taking all the parts.
“Not too bad, is it?” She could hear his joy, his pride in the revue ring like a telephone bell through his drawl.
And then she’d ask him about the office and whether the work was very hard and how he liked it. And he began to tell her, carefully and seriously, suddenly breaking off with:
“You’re absolutely certain I’m not boring you?”
“You’ll notice,” the Author says, “that Isherwood here is giving the reader the impression of a slow-moving, even a boring conversation, but he doesn’t want to bore us readers to death in the process. Do you see what he does to get around the problem?”
Format and punctuation 2
Fred grins. “Sure ,he just describes the conversation, in part at least, when he writes, ‘And he began to tell her, carefully and seriously, suddenly breaking off with:
“ ‘ “You’re absolutely certain I’m not boring you?” ‘ “
“That’s great punctuation, Fred. Within your own quote (“ “) you quote some other material, which goes into single quotes (“ ‘ ‘ “), and that material also has a quotation in it, so you go to double quotes again (“ ‘ “ “ ‘ “). You’re learning fast! Pretty soon you’ll want to be an author yourself, if I don’t watch out!” The Author grins broadly.
Nonconversations 1: summary dialogue
Fred squints. There is an odd gleam in his eye.
“But let’s make sure we don’t carry this description of a conversation business too far. Usually if we find that sort of thing in a story, especially by a novice writer, it means the writer is uncomfortable with dialogue and is trying to avoid writing it. Isherwood used nonconversation for a special purpose, to slow the pace, and he used it well.
“Are there other ways to slow the pace of dialogue in the dialogue itself?”
Narration 2: frame narration
“There’s frame narration.”
“This begins to get us back to the question of narration hat we raised when we began ‘Savants.’ Every story has a narrator, but narration isn’t usually considered to be dialogue, though it’s clearly somebody talking. In the case of ‘Savants’ it was a major character who was narrating, but the narration in that story was clearly a monologue, which is a form of dialogue.
“Frame narration also muddies the waters between narration and dialogue,” the Author continues, “and the grand master of frame narration is Joseph Conrad. Let’s take a look at his novel Heart of Darkness; here’s how it begins (I’m not going to use quotation marks except for actual speeches by people, so bear that in mind, okay?)”:
The Nellie, a cruising yawl, swung to her anchor without a flutter of the sails, and was at rest.
“Who’s that talking, Fred?”
“That’s obviously the author narrating the story.”
“But it’s not. Two paragraphs later Conrad sets the characters, and we discover that the narrator is a character in the story, one of four people, but not the one named Marlow.”
“How do we know those things?”
“The next sentence I’ll quote tells you”:
The Director of Companies was our captain and our host. We four affectionately watched his back as he stood in the bows looking to seaward.
“Who were the four?” Fred asks.
The Lawyer – the best of old fellows – had, because of his many years and many virtues, the only cushion on deck, and was lying on the only rug. The Accountant had brought out already a box of dominoes, and was toying architecturally with the bones. Marlow sat crossed-legged right aft, leaning against the mizzen-mast. He had sunken cheeks, a yellow complexion, a straight back, an ascetic aspect, and, with his arms dropped, the palms of hands outwards, resembled an idol.
“So the author’s not narrating,” Fred observes, “and neither is Marlow.”
“But Marlow is going to be a major player – in fact, he is the real protagonist of the novel, although a fellow named Mr. Kurtz at first appears to be.
“After some scene-setting and mood inducement, here’s what happens”:
“And this also,” said Marlow suddenly, “has been one of the dark places of the earth.”
“That begins the narration of Marlow’s adventure. There’s a little more mood inducement, but after that Marlow tells the story – he is the ‘frame narrator’ of the novel. Clearly, this sort of narrative is a monologue, and every once in a while Conrad has to remind the reader that it’s still really a minor character who is telling the overall story, which includes the story the frame narrator is telling.”
“How does he do that?” Fred asks, leaning forward and brushing the hair out of his glinty eyes.
“Well, after a very long piece of frame narration – pages of it, in fact – Conrad does this”:
…“It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream – making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is of the very essence of dreams…”
“…No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence – that which makes its truth, its meaning – its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream – alone…”
He paused again as if reflecting, then added –
“Of course in this you fellows see more than I could then. You see me, whom you know…”
It had become so pitch darkthat we listeners could hardly see one another.
“So that’s frame narration,” Fred says.
“Can we go back to ‘Savants’ for a bit?”
The Author nods. “Why not?”
Fred hesitates for a moment. “In that story it was the main character, the protagonist, who was delivering a monologue.”
Diction 2: characterization
“Right, just as in Heart of Darkness, except that she was the narrator, not the frame narrator. Every story must have a narrator and a protagonist as a basic minimum. Sometimes they’re the same person, but often they’re not. What was she like? You heard her, but did you see her as well? As a person, I mean.”
Fred nods vigorously, his think hair falling down across his forehead. He raises his left hand and brushes it back. “Sure. He was a housewife who lived in an ordinary neighbourhood. She had very little education – you could tell that by the way she spoke.”
“That’s diction again – I mentioned it earlier. Her level of diction was not very high. Her vocabulary was limited – she used no big words, and she mispronounced the biggest word in the story – the French word savant which means ‘wise person.’ She had no frame of reference for it, so she equated it with the English word that sounded most like it – servant.”
“Even that confusion helped to characterize her,” Fred says, leaning forward. “After all, she was a servant to this kid she had who was severely retarded. She was stuck with this child that she both loved and hated, with a husband who wanted to get rid of their child and who didn’t like his wife much. She was desperate.”
“Desperate and hopeless. And finally she broke.”
“She had so many conflicts,” Fred says, “but the main one was internal.”
“Was there any action in the story?”
Fred thinks about that for a minute. “Not any direct action that the reader could see, though the narrator/protagonist tells us about a scene that was filled with action, when she took out all her frustrations on her child and abused him physically.”
“Action is the best way to characterize someone, but speech is the second-best way – the speech of the person being characterized, and then the speech of the of other characters talking about that person. Was the story dramatic?”
“Almost too dramatic. Maybe, in fact, melodramatic.”
“I hope not,” the Author replies, “but in any case, the first thing one has to learn about fiction is that conflict and problem are at the root of any dramatic situation and, generally speaking, a dramatic situation is the basis for all storytelling.”
“No wonder fiction and drama have so much in common. It is possible that some stories are actually plays?”
“ ‘Savants’ is actually a play. If it were read aloud it would be no different from any other monologue seen on stage. In fact, to turn it into a stage production all you’d have to do for a scene is put the monologist into a kitchen when another woman.”
“Are there any famous stories like that?” Fred asks.
Anyone watching might be able to see the hair bristle on the Author’s neck. But he is a professional, and he controls himself after a moment’s pause.
“Well, there’s a recent story by Jamaica Kincaid titled “Girl” that’s appearing in a lot of anthologies these days. It appears at first to be a monologue, but in fact it’s a dialogue because a second person speaks two sentences. There’s no scene-setting, but we soon understand that a mother is teaching her daughter, whom she doesn’t trust, to be a West Indian homemaker. The whole story is in fact made up of one huge sentence and is barely more than a page long. The mother lays down rule after rule. The daughter tries, twice, to interrupt, once with a protest of innocence, once with a question. It’s no use: the acid-tongued mother rolls right on. The daughter’s dialogue is given in italics, right in the middle of the mother’s speech.”
“I can see that’s close to being a play,” Fred says. “Mainly just one person, talking – the mother’s voice, with no descriptions or ‘she saids.’ But the daughter sounds like such an underdog. I think I’d probably like her better, even though she only has two lines. Better than the mother, who has most of the speech.”
“It’s human conflict in which we are interested, and that holds true even if our main character is an animal, or a bird, or an insect, or whatever, for the creature at the heart of the story will display human characteristics with which we can empathize.”
“What’s the difference between empathy and sympathy?” Fred is having trouble with his limp pompadour, first because it’s so hot and muggy in the attic room – it’s July, and the Author works in a garret – and, second, because he is fanning himself with some of the pages of the manuscript.
“Hey! Put those down!”
Fred gets up suddenly and goes to the narrow window that looks down on West Eighth Street. He knows if he could stick his head out the window and look left, he’d probably be able to see Lake Ontario at the bottom of the hill.
“Stop doing exposition,” he says to the Author testily, “and answer my question. But first, how about if I turn on the air conditioner?” That is the reason he cannot put his head out the window – it is full of useless machinery.
“Oh, sure!” the Author says, “I’m sorry. It is getting hot. Just turn that knob on the left and set it on high. That’s it.” The rush of cool air begins to hum into the room. Fred wipes his brow and brushes back his forelock.
“Empathy is a feeling with,” the Author taps out on his keyboard. “We put ourselves in the place of the creature or the person struggling. Empathy is stronger than sympathy which is a feeling for something, from the outside. Remember back under Viewpoint 1 when I mentioned subjective and objective access? Well, think of it this way: empathy is subjective, getting inside another person’s character and situation. When we experience empathy, we are identifying with another being, becoming one with it, in effect. Sympathy is more objective, though it’s still fellow-feeling.”
“Sort of, ‘There, but for the grace of God, go I,’ as opposed to, ‘This is happening to me as it happens to my fellow.’ “Fred purses his lips and knits his brows. “A while back you said that a story has to have at least a narrator and a protagonist…”
“And that they are sometimes one and the same. That’s right. What’s the matter?”
Fred is shaking his head vigorously, as though he is trying to loosen up cobwebs that are clouding his sight. “My head’s starting to spin. I’ve got so many questions I hardly know what to ask first.”
“Calm down, Fred.” The Author rises and pats Fred on the shoulder.
Characterization by nomenclature
“Hey!” Fred yells. The Author jumps back, startled. “How come I don’t have a last name?”
“What do you need a last name for? The woman in ‘Savants’ had no names at all.”
Fred just gives the Author a cold, sardonic stare.
“Okay, we’ll go with characterization by nomenclature – your last name is Foyle… Fred Foyle. How’s that?”
Fred groans. “I had to ask.”
“Well, that’s your name. judging from the spelling you’re probably an Irishman. Now, what’s your question?”
Subject and theme
“This may seem as though it’s coming out of left field, but, okay – what’s the difference between subject and a theme?”
“That’s easy. A subject is what you’re talking about, and it can be expressed in a word or a phrase: Love is a subject. But a theme is what you say about a subject, and it can only be expressed in a complete sentence: ‘Love is a many-splintered thing’ is a theme. Note that the subject of our story is also the subject of our sentence. If you write a story illustrating that theme, you have to choose your elements so as to back it. All the other aspects of the story, including the dialogue, must support the theme.”
“Does dialogue have any other part in subject t and theme?” Fred leans forward a little to get a bit further into the flow of air from the conditioner. It blows his thin hair about a bit.
“Sure. Take ‘Girl’ for instance. Since the whole story is a dialogue, the only way the author can express the theme is through the speech of one of the characters. The theme of the story is in the last line, spoken by the antagonist, the mother. To paraphrase, she says to her daughter, ‘You mean you’re not going to turn out to be a slut after all? Maybe I’ve misjudged you.’ “
“Okay,” Fred says slowly, leaning forward again, “I’ve thought of another question: besides character and theme, what are the other basic elements of a story?”
Plot and atmosphere
“Well, there’s plot, and there’s atmosphere.”
“Gimme, gimme,” Fred says, wiggling the finger of his left hand. “Don’t keep making me pull it out of you.”
“Plot has to do with the story line of actions and events that take place in the narrative, and the resolution of the conflict between protagonist and antagonist. Just as theme is the thread of thought that binds all elements of the narrative, plot can be defined as ‘the thread’ of actions and events’ that carries the narrative and that serves to exemplify the theme.”
Fred scratches his head. “It’s getting nice and cool in here.” The Author stops typing to lean back and scratch his own head. Either Fred Foyle’s action is catching, psychosomatically or otherwise, or the cats have been in his study again and there are fleas in the room. “But we need to discuss character a bit more first.
“Character has to do with the personal characteristics of the persons of the narrative – if we were writing a play we’d call them the cast, the dramatis personae, as the Britannica did…”
“There go those foreign terms again. I think you writers like to use them because they make you feel superior.” The Author notices a sneer on Fred’s physiognomy –
“See what I mean?” Fred shakes with sarcastic glee.
– on Fred’s face. “Quit reading over my shoulder, will you?” the author asks peevishly.
“I thought you said a writer’s not supposed to use so many adjectives and adverbs to describe things,” Fred says. “ ‘Sarcastic,’ ‘peevishly.’ “
“It’s not a good idea to use lots, but a few won’t hurt on occasion. But you’re right – you ought to show it through action and dialogue, not tell about it with modifiers. But do you want me to answer your question about the elements of fiction or not?” There is a note of annoyance in the Author’s voice.
“Shoot!” Fred says.
“Not a bad idea,” the Author replies. “Anyway, it’s the personal characteristics of the persons of the narrative that will determine their actions, reactions, and dialogue in any given situation. As I’ve said, the only necessary persona – that’s a technical term we’ve used before meaning, in effect, ‘a mask adopted by an author in order to tell a story’ – is the protagonist, the main character of the story, the ‘hero’ or ‘heroine.’ However, a narrative may have a multiple protagonist – for instance, a group or a village – though normally one person will represent such a composite protagonist.”
“Besides these personal characteristics, does a protagonist have any other qualities?”
“A protagonist will have two qualities, basically: a dominant personality trait, such as courage, generosity or fervor, and a desire – to be, to have, or to do something. This desire will aim the protagonist at an objective or goal.”
“I take it that the antagonist’s purpose in the story is to block the protagonist from achieving the goal. Is that right?”
“Right again, Fred!” The Author beams at him, squinting into the screen of the monitor. “The protagonist will be blocked in his or her desire to attain his goal by a logical antagonist who may be another person in opposition; a situation, such as being lost in a blizzard; a force, as for instance society; or an aspect of the protagonist’s own personality.
“This opposition of protagonist and antagonist leads to conflict, which is essential to the dramatic situation – be sure not to confuse this with the dramatic viewpoint, which has to do with the narrator, not the protagonist. This is the classic formula for a story: desire, opposition, conflict.”
Viewpoint 2: orientation, person, angle, access
“I thought you said the narrator and the protagonist might be the same person?”
“But not always – in fact, not usually. An author has to choose a particular narrative viewpoint from which to tell the story, and here we’re talking about narrative voice. A writer has several elements that must be combined in order to make up a narrative voice.”
“As for instance…?”
“First, there’s orientation. There are two main choices to make here, and one secondary choice. From the author-oriented viewpoint, it is the author who narrates the story. From the character-oriented viewpoint, it is one of the personae in the story who narrates. The secondary choice is whether it’s a major character – the protagonist or antagonist – who does the narration, or a minor character.”
Fred nods. “So it’s possible for the author of a story to be its protagonist as well, I take it.”
“Yes, but if an author chooses that orientation he may be writing biography rather than fiction, and the fact that he’s a character will have to take precedence. You’ll see why when we get to angle and to access, which we’ve already mentioned in Viewpoint 1. Right now, though, let’s talk about the second element of viewpoint, person.
“The story may be narrated in the first person – that is, ‘I went downtown and bought a loaf of bread on Monday morning’; or in the second person – ‘You were sitting alone in your office that day when a tall blond walked through the door of your agency and sat down. “Hi, I’m Mike,” he said.’ This, though, is usually just a disguised form of third person narration, which is the most common of the three – ‘he took out a gun and shot his own foot.’ “
“Or stuck it in his mouth, like you did there.” Fred begins to pace again. The attic room is cool at last. “I noticed that when the blond walked in you used double quotes for his speech, but you used single quotes for the narration within your own speech, which was in double quotes.”
Format and punctuation 3
“Yes, that’s the rule – double quotes, single quotes, double quotes, and so on ad infinitum. We’ve mentioned it before.”
“You sure like that Latin,” Fred said shaking his head.
“And then there’s angle,” the Author continues, ignoring him. “In the single angle only the actions of one character are followed; only what occurs in his or her presence is narrated. In the multiple angle – double, triple, etc. – what occurs in the presence of two or more characters is narrated. In the omnipresent angle the narrator has access to actions everywhere in the narrative.”
“It would be hard for an author who made himself a character-narrator to tell the story from anything but the single-angle, wouldn’t it?”
“Exactly, though it would be easy to stand back from the story and tell it from the multiple-angle. Which brings us to access: the narrator may have only objective access to events; that is, he or she may narrate only actions observed externally. Or, the narrator may have subject access; that is, he or she may be able to narrate not only external actions, but the thoughts and emotions of the characters as well.”
“Things are getting complicated,” Fred says.
“As with all other language techniques, the narrator may choose to blend any combination of orientation, person, access, and angle. The ‘omniscient’ viewpoint is a blending of narrative choice in which the author has joined omnipresent angle with subjective access to all characters – in other words, the author knows all about everything, internal and external, everywhere in the story, and narrates it that way.”
“Let’s see if I have this stuff down straight. The viewpoint of ‘Savant’s was character-oriented, first-person, single-angle, subjective-access narration.”
“I couldn’t have said it better myself, Fred.”
“But what about ‘Girl’? That had two voices. Does that mean that its viewpoint is author-oriented, third person, single-angle, objective-access?”
“I think that’s what you’d have to say.”
“And Heart of Darkness?”
“That was frame narration, and it really has two points of view, I suppose you’d have to say. The narrator of the overall story was a minor character, so that’s its orientation. He reports what Marlow says, describes the scene, and sets the mood, so the narration is third-person. There was only one scene, the yacht, and that’s a single-angle. All the narrator knew was what the frame narrator told him, so he had only objective access.”
“But the real story, about Mr. Kurtz, was told in a near-monologue, so you’d really have to double orientation, person, angle, and access, wouldn’t you?” Fred asks, scratching his head. “Are there fleas in this room?”
“It’s possible,” the Author says. He scratches his stomach surreptitiously, bending forward toward the screen to hide his movements from Foyle.
“Have we covered all the basic elements of fiction now?” Fred raises his eyebrows inquisitively. Like his hair, they are pale, and they are lost for a moment in his forelock.
“Not quite. There’s still atmosphere, and we haven’t shown how dialogue can move the action – plot – along.”
“Yes, and mood is created by means of the setting – the locale or environment in which the narrative takes place, the attitude – of the narrator and of the characters in the story, and descriptions.”
“Some stories are all character, all plot, or atmosphere or even theme. Am I right?”
“Well, it can seem that way sometimes, but most stories will be a combination of all those things. Still, the fictionist may build his story by emphasizing any one or any combination of two or more of the four native elements: character, atmosphere, theme, or plot.”
“So ‘Savants’ is a character story mainly. What’s ‘Girl’? I didn’t get much of a sense of character, except maybe the toughness of the mother and a whiff of the innocence of the girl.”
“What do you think it was?”
“A theme story?”
“Without a doubt, my fine Irish friend!”
“Okay, show me how dialogue can help set the scene and induce mood.”
“Right. Here’s some scene-setting in dialogue form from Ursula LeGuin’s ‘Conversations at Night’ – it’s the very opening of the story”:
“The best thing to do is get him married.”
“Who’d marry him?”
“Plenty of girls! He’s still a big strong fellow, good-looking. Plenty of girls.”
When their sweating arms or thighs touched under the sheet they moved apart with a jerk, then lay again staring at the dark.
“What about his pension?” Albrekt asked at last. “She’d get it.”
“Fascinating!” Fred says, grinning. “Now, how about mood?”
“This is from H.G. Wells’ novel The First Men in the Moon:
“If we were to set fire to all this stuff,” I said, “we might find the sphere among the ashes.”
Cavor did not seem to hear me. He was peering under his hand at the stars, that still, in spite of the intense sunlight, were abundantly visible in the sky. “How long do you think we have been here?” he asked at last.
“On the moon.”
“Two earthly days, perhaps.”
“More nearly ten. Do you know, the sun is past its zenith, and sinking in the west? In four days’ time or less it will be night.”
“But – we’ve only eaten once!”
“I know that. and – but there are the stars!”
“But why should time seem different because we are on a smaller planet?”
“I don’t know. There it is!”
“How does one tell time?”
“Hunger – fatigue – all those things are different. Everything is different. Everything. To me it seems that since first we came out of the sphere has been only a question of hours – long hours. At most.”
Fred clears his throat and says nothing for a moment. The two men listen to the sounds of the air conditioner until Fred breaks the stillness. “That’s not just mood – and a strange one at that, it’s setting too,” Fred says.
“The two go together, as theme goes with subject.”
“I’m in an odd mood myself,” Fred says, a note of anxiety, perhaps even of wonder in his voice. “Something just happened – what is it? It’s as though something’s missing and simultaneously, as though I’ve experienced this before… sort of a combination of amnesia and déjà vu. What’s going on?”
“I’m rewriting the manuscript, Freddy. Ten months have passed since you were born, and my editor wants me to add and cut, especially cut full stories – ‘Limit all examples to two hundred words or less,’ she says. I don’t see how I can do that – you’ll notice I didn’t cut ‘Savants’ – but I’m going to do the best I can. I just cut a whole story out of the manuscript, and now I’ve got to add material.”
“What’s your editor’s name? – man, this is weird!” Fred avers.
“ ‘Avers’?” Fred asks, his lip curling, his brows raised. “You say I aver something?”
“See how those unusual verbs stick out? My editor’s name is Nan.”
“What does she want you to add?”
“Would you like to meet her?”
“Sure. How we going to do that?”
“By conjuring her up. Listen.”
Fred cocks his head to the left so that his forelock flops down across the part in his hair, which, though he is left-handed, is nevertheless on the left side of his head. He hears footsteps on the attic stairs, then a knock on the door.
“Come in!” the Author calls, pushing his rolling stool back from the keyboard. The knob turns and Nan Deditter enters. She stands for a moment staring at the writer and the would-be writer cum foil.
“I’m surprised!” Fred whispers. “She looks more or less like a normal person. I thought editors were something like ogres in tigers clothing.”
“Shut up, Foyle!” the Author rasps, she’ll hear you. I don’t know if that’s what she looks like. It’s how I imagine her.” Turning to his fictive editor the Author rises and says in a gracious a manner as possible, “Come in and sit down, won’t you, Ms. Deditter?”
“Thank you,” she replies. “Which of you is the Author?”
“I am, and this is my friend and partner, Fred Foyle.”
“Oh, yes,” Deditter says, smoothing the neatly pressed pleats of her linen skirt. “We’ve met.”
“Do I detect a hint that she didn’t like me?” Fred asks. He is speaking in a whisper still. His eyes are wide and staring. He is talking out of the side of his mouth.
“That’s true, Fred, but you’ll notice you’re still around. I insisted on it.”
Foyle says nothing but gives the Author a grateful glance before he focuses again on the editorial apparition.
“ ‘Editorial apparition!?’ ” both Foyle and Deditter exclaim simultaneously.
“Just checking to see if you’re listing to me, both of you.”
“What does she want you to do?” Fred asks.
“Please stop treating me as though I’m not in the room, Fred,” Nan says evenly. “If I have reservations about your function in this book, they are based on a good deal of professional experience. All I want is for this book to be the best book on dialogue available in the market.”
“Man, it’s cold in here!” Fred says. He turns to shut off the air conditioner. “How long has this been running?”
“It’s May now, not July. As far as you’re concerned it’s been running all fall, winter, and spring.”
“Okay, Nan,” Fred says, addressing Ms. Deditter directly. “Then answer my question. What do you want him to do?”
“Besides get rid of you, you mean?” She cocks an eyebrow. Nan says abruptly, addressing Fred. “Talk about why characters shouldn’t make long speeches to one another, except in rare instances.”
“You’ve done some of that,” Fred says.
“I have to,” the Author replies. “This is a didactic book, not a novel or a story, so this is one of those ‘rare instances.’ But it’s true that characters shouldn’t just stand around jawing, doing exposition and things like that.”
Nan nods. Her businesslike coiffure shakes but retains its attractive shape. “They should avoid boring chat about the obvious and the trivial. Sometimes characters ought not to reply to one another directly, but obliquely or not at all, each one talking about his own preoccupation, and the like.”
“Like I did just a while ago?” Fred asks in a whisper still.
“Like you’re doing right now,” the Author says.
Fred clears his throat and turns his back on the room, staring out the window onto Fifth Street. “The trees are just starting to leaf out,” he says. “Man, spring is sure late in this part of the country.”
“I want you,” Nan sits down on the Lazyboy and points an immaculately manicured finger at the Author’s chest, “to illustrate counterpoint in dialogue, the story’s action moving back and forth from speaker to speaker, always moving, each speaker contributing something to the whole.”
“How do you spell that?” Fred says, throwing a sharp glance back over his shoulder.
“Spell what?” Nan asks.
“Shut up, Fred. Nothing,” the Author says. “Go on.”
Fred shrugs. His head seems to sink into his shoulders. He doesn’t move. “It’s getting hot in here again,” he says.
“I want you to show how characters react even when they’re not speaking, showing that the other characters’ comments are affecting them.”
Fred turns the air conditioner back on. He leans over the rush of cool air and raises his arms slightly, so that the flow cools his chest and armpits. He casts a glance, full of distrust, back over his shoulder at his inventor and at his potential assassin.
Dialogue and action
“Mmph” the Author says to Nan. “You mean like this? This is the beginning of a story titled ‘Pleasant Dell.’ It’s about Horace, an old man bedridden in a nursing home”:
Horace lay in his bed and listened to the attendant shambling up the hall with the lunch cart. He heard Miller stop and unload one tray, knocks once loudly on a door, then turn a knob and go in. a few moments later the squeaky wheels started up the corridor again. Eventually they got to Horace’s room. By that time he was ready for Miller.
The know was followed by a violent twist of the knob, and then a tray held by a thick, hairy arm was pushed through the doorway.
“Very ugly,” Horace said as Miller deposited the try on the nightstand. “You, sir, are tremendously, not to say overwhelmingly foul of face and gross of limb.” It had been a long sentence, and Horace wheezed a bit.
“Who asked you?” Miller muttered at the old man. He turned around to leave.
But Horace stopped him. “Girls,” he said.
“What?” There was a dog buried in Miller’s throat. Horace could hear it snarling.
The hairs along the back of the old man’s neck began to prickle with anticipation. He moved his long bones under the cold sheet, warped his lips into a grin and said, “Girls, Miller. Girls, girls, girls. Young ones with big breasts and pearly round thighs. You got any?” He laughed. He caught himself, though, before he began to cough. The room rolled, but he focused at last on the huge attendant who stood, panting now, very close to the bed rail.
“I got girls,” Miller said. “Lots.” His knuckles swelled around the rail and began to turn white at the jobs.
“Oh, verily. You have girls. Do they dance for you, Miller, flounce for you, jounce and bobble? How is it when you come to them in the night? Do their eyes glisten like the eyes of spring does in the moonlight? Ah, it must be sweet, you wag, the white flesh and its flailing in the shadow.” The old man felt again, at last, the warm blood begin to stir in his toes, and the heart he’s listened for closely in the earlier white and quiet hours began to pump. There still is life, he thought – yes, still. It is still there.
Miller had grown darker. He loomed over the bed, his face thrust nearly into the gray stubble of Horace’s beard. He seemed about to explode magnificently. His great lips twisted. “Nyarrgh!” Miller sounded, the whale word bursting out of his face. “Bloo bloo bloo! Ack, you old stink, blag, grah!” The childish and monstrous noises rocked him. He swayed on his feet, turned nearly purple. “I’ll kill you someday, but God I will.” Then Miller seemed to collapse into himself, like a balloon on which someone had opened the valve.
The old man giggled in his sheets, his skin prickled and tingled. “Not someday, Miller,” he said. “Now. Kill me now while I’m like this. I want to know I’m alive when I die, Miller.” He felt it begin to ebb away. His lungs stopped heaving, and he looked up at the big man, his smile fading.
“Holy smokes!” Fred exclaims. “Go on!”
“Sorry, though I’ve done it a couple of times, I’m not supposed to include whole stories. I’ve got to stick to the subject – dialogue.”
Fred stares at Deditter. She stares back. At last Fred drops his eyes and says something under his breath. He looks up when he hears the attic door slam shut and feet stuttering down the stairs. He shifts his gaze to the Author, his eyes asking a silent question.
“She’ll probably be back.” Fred’s mouth begins to open. “Don’t say it. She knows everything you do, whether she’s in the room or not.” Fred Foyle sits quietly for a moment or two riffling the pages of the manuscript that have so far been run off on the printer.
“Well, that sure was dialogue moving the action along, all right.”
“But I didn’t have to use it as an example, because we’d already done interactive dialogue.”
“When I brought Nan into the study. Go back and look it over.” The Author leans against the soft back of his typing stool, stretches, and glances at his watch.
“Are we about through with dialogue as it applies to the elements of the short story?”
“Just about, I’m ready for a break. How about you?”
Viewpoint 3: subjective, objective, dramatic
“Oh, sure, sure,” Fred says, pushing his wayward forelock back into his hairline.
“Tell you want – while I’m gone, you can fool around with the computer if you like. Can you type?”
“I think so.” Fred looks dubious.
“Well, go ahead and give it a try. I’ll be back in about ten.” The Author rises and leaves, wishing immediately that he hadn’t – the heat on the attic stairs outside the door is like a big fuzzy mitten enveloping his body. As he goes carefully down the steep stairs he hears the soft clicking of the keyboard behind him.
“I thought he’d never leave,” Fred writes. “Sure, I can type – whatever he can do, I can do as well or better. This business of being Fred Foyle is a drag. Why couldn’t it have been I whom am the Author instead? I could have invented him instead… no, I’d have invented somebody lese, just to get even… only, if I were the Author and he weren’t invented, how could I get eve with him? Man, this is getting too philosophical for a book on how to write dialogue in fiction. Let’s keep it simple.
“Okay, let’s see, what am I writing now? It must be a monologue – no, I’m thinking it not speaking it aloud, so it’s got to be a soliloquy: ‘To be, or not to be – that is the question!’ Only I’ve got no choice in the matter. I’ve been created, and that’s that…”
“You’re no worse off in that regard than anybody else,” the Author says. Fred jumps.
“Good grief!” he gasps, “I didn’t hear you come in. Don’t sneak up on me like that again, okay?” Fred slides off the stool and the Author takes his place, leaning over the keyboard and squinting at the monitor.
“Let’s see what we’ve got here,” he says, scrolling back to what Fred had written.
“It’s a soliloquy,” Fred says.
“It’s more than that. On the surface, it looks like an example of subjective voice.”
Fred leans over the Author’s shoulder and looks. “Did you do that on purpose?” he asks. “Leave the room, I mean. Did you figure I’d write something like that?”
“Sure,” the Author says.
“That’s pretty manipulative.”
“Of course. What do you think you’re here for?”
Viewpoint 4: aspects of narration
Fred makes a strangling noise in his throat, pauses, and then he says, “So that’s subjective voice?”
“From your perspective it is. You see that there’s only one aspect of narration. Your point of view is the only one in the soliloquy.”
“What other point of view can there be?”
“Well, think of yourself – a persona, an invented character – standing in the centre of a circle… that’s your world. Now also imagine a narrator standing off to one side, outside the circle, looking at it – the character’s world – and at the character in that world. Now, imagine that the narrator begins to tell what’s going on with the character. He’s using the objective voice, and this perspective has two aspects. The reader sees what’s happening to the character – that’s the aspect of narration; and the reader also gets a sense of how the narrator feels about the character by the manner in which the narrator tells the story, makes the persona act and speak – that’s a second aspect, the aspect of reflection.”
“You mean whether the narrator tells the story humorously, or seriously, or whatever?”
“Right. Take that last Horace story. We know that Horace is, in a way, a humorous figure, by the way in which he talks and acts, but we also know that the humour has an edge to it – it’s a black humour. We also know that Miller is a limited and sullen person, whom Horace can manipulate at will because he’s smarter. We feel sorry for Miller, but possibly we feel even sorrier for Horace. When one uses the objective voice one may be telling one’s own or someone else’s story, but telling it by standing off at a distance. Even so, the reader is not excluded from the story because we see the speaker reflected in the way the author tells the story.”
“Are you saying that if an author discusses his true feelings and bluntly stated opinions and ideas, he’s writing something other than a story?”
“Right, Fred. That’s subjective viewpoint. The reader may be excluded.”
“But if he tells what really happened to him, that is a story?”
“Exactly, but if it’s a true story it’s autobiography, not fiction. Still, it’s objective viewpoint.”
“But Shakespeare wrote plays, so that’s not ‘objective voice,’ or ‘subjective voice,’ is it?”
“No, you’re right. What we were doing when we discusses orientation, person, angle, and access, was breaking down objective voice into its components, but Shakespeare was going one step further – he was using dramatic voice. That is, he put on a mask – he became his character and we know that character’s world from the inside, just as we know a subjective speaker’s perspective. But we don’t have to talk about Shakespeare and drama, we can talk about some stories we’ve read.”
Fred nods, but without conviction. “You mean like ‘Savants’ and ‘Girl’?”
“And even Heart of Darkness. Think of it this way: You have your circle, and you have your character standing in the centre of that circle; you have your narrator standing off to one side. But the narration pierces the circle instead of stopping outside it – the narrator enters the mind and body of his or her character, makes the character act, think, and speak. So you have the aspect of narration; and you have the subjective aspect of the character, and then you have the aspect of reflection because we know how the narrator feels about his character by the way in which he manipulates the character.”
“So subjective voice is exclusive because it has only one aspect; objective voice is inclusive because it has two aspects – narrative and reflective, but dramatic voice is most inclusive of the three because it has a third aspect… the subjective aspect from the character’s point of view?”
“You’ve got it, Fred.”
“So what I wrote up above is subjective voice?”
“From your point of view, yes.”
“Is the tip-off of subjective voice the pronoun ‘I’?”
“At first glance it might appear so, but in fact, the dramatic voices uses ‘I’ too: ‘I, Horace, would like to die violently so that I know I’m alive and not already dead when I die.’ That’s why your soliloquy is dramatic voice and not subjective voice, because it was spoken by a character I invented, not by the Author.”
Fred is silent for a moment. The Author can see him flushing with frustration, resentment, embarrassment, chagrin – or a combination of all those emotions. “So there’s no way I can write anything subjectively?”
“No way in the world.” The Author shakes his head ruefully. “I’m sorry, pal. You’re almost purely dialogue.”
“But what’s the point of it all?” Fred asks. His tone is rueful, too. “Why get so complicated with piling subjective voice, upon objective voice, upon dramatic voice, upon frame narration? I mean, why should a story have to be so complicated?”
“It doesn’t have to be complicated, but if an author wants texture and depth, then the more aspects of narration he or she includes, the thicker the texture will be and the deeper the mood will plunge. Heart of Darkness is a classic of brooding depth and moody texture, and much of that effect is the direct result of narration by one character listening to the monologue of another. The more inclusive a story is, the better the chance that it will mirror the world.”
“Forget it,” Fred says. “Let’s go on to something else.”
“No, let’s do some summing up. We’ve considered dialogue as it applies to the four basic elements of fiction; that is to say, character, setting/atmosphere, plot, and theme, but we haven’t mentioned some of the things dialogue can do and shouldn’t do with regard to these subjects. For instance, dialogue can be used as a foreshadowing device.”
“That means ‘giving a hint of things to come,’ doesn’t it?”
“Exactly. Can you think of a place where that’s happened in one of our examples?”
Fred lowers himself slowly to the seat of the Lazyboy and perches on the edgeof it. He looks sleepy. He rubs the back of his right hand with his left. “Got it!” he says, snapping his fingers. “How about in the second Horace story where Miller says – let’s see –“ he leafs through the manuscript, “ ‘I’ll kill you someday, by God I will.’ Is that a place?”
“A rather blatant example, indeed, but yes, it is.”
“Does he doe it?”
“That’s problematical, Fred. You’ll have to read the story. It’s titled ‘Pleasant Dell,’ as I’ve mentioned.”
“And where am I likely to find it?”
“Right over on that shelf of magazines,” the Author says, pointing to the bottom shelf behind the stereo table. “I’ll get it out for you later on. You can read it when you’re off duty.”
Dialogue and moralizing
“When I’m ‘off duty’ I’m nowhere pal,” Fred sneers. “Do you know where ‘nowhere’ is? It’s nowhere, limbo, nada, Erewhon. When you dismiss me,” he gestures emotively with his arm, “I become one with the cosmos, my ego disappears, I come to the end of the sevenfold path to Nirvana. I can take no magazines there, I can’t even take myself there. You continue with your humanity, but I enter the fogs of the Underworld and wander betwixt Styx and Lethe!”
“Thanks? Thanks for what?” Fred asks.
“For illustrating overemphasis on theme. Dialogue can, in Nan Deditter’s words, ‘drive the special nails that fasten a story’s meaning down solidly,’ but as she points out also in this letter of… let’s see, nuts! I can’t find the first page. Well anyway, she also points out that there can be ‘overkill inthis respect, blatant moralizing.’ That was real blatant, Fred.”
“Glad to be of service,” Fred moans. He sits down again. “What’s next? What else can I do for you? Jesus, how I hate this!”
The Author cocks an eyebrow at Fred, who catches the irony in the gesture. “Forget I said that,” he says.
“Here’s some more foreshadowing,” the Author says, “in a passage that contains interactive dialogue, internal monologue – all sorts of things we’ve been talking about. It’s from the science-fiction novel Dune by Frank Herbert”?
How many times must I tell that lad never to settle himself with his back to the door? Hawat cleared his throat.
Paul remained bent over his studies.
A cloud shadow passed over the skylights. Again Hawat cleared his throat.
Paul straightened, spoke without turning: “I know. I’m sitting with my back to the door.”
Hawat suppressed a smile, strode across the room.
Paul looked up at the grizzled old man who stopped at a corner of the table. Hawat’s eyes were two pools of alertness in a dark and deeply seamed face.
“I heard you coming down the hall,” Paul said. “And I heard you open the door.”
“The sounds I make could be imitated.”
“I’d know the difference.”
He might at that, Hawat thought. That witch-mother of his is giving him the deep training, certainly. I wonder what her precious school thinks of that? Maybe that’s why they sent the old Proctor here – to whip our dear Lady Jessica into line.
“That foreshadowing is a bit subtler,” Fred Foyle says, “but it’s all mixed in with exposition, characterization, plot development, and scene-setting.”
“Right,” the Author says. “I thought it might make a pretty good summary of this section.”
“And so it does,” says Fred. “Why don’t we call it a day?”
“Let’s call it a chapter, too,” the Author replies as he pushes the keys to save his file and exit from the word-processing program. “Get a good night’s sleep.”
“No, wait!” Fred yells, but it’s too late.
©Andrea MarshallDodgson 1973