“You haven’t done much more than mention ‘tone’ and ‘style,’ “ Fred Foyle says as he brushes back his foreknot.
Tone and style 2
“As we’re using the terms here, tone, according to the Random House Dictionary, is ‘a particular expressive quality, way of sounding, or modulation, or intonation of voice’; style is ‘the mode and form of expression, as distinguished from the content,’ “ the Author informs Fred categorically.
“So when you write this – ‘ “I must be the forst aboard,” the Scotsman whispered prayerfully’ – that adverb, prayerfully, is describing the ‘tone’ of voice in which he is speaking?”
“That’s right. However, it’s always better for a writer to show tone by context rather than merely describe it.”
“How would you do that?”
“Well, I could have done it this way: ‘Forrest MacFarlane clasped his hands and fell to his insubstantial knees. “I must be the forst aboard!” the Scotsman whispered.
“Ah!” Fred murmured. “And how about an example of ‘style’?”
Speech 1: ordinary
“How about several?” the Author asks. “And we’ll start with the ‘style’ of ordinary speech. Let’s listen in on a conversation a teacher is having with his secretary. Though it’s summer and the teacher is on vacation, the secretary has phoned and asked him to come to the office to sign two drop slips, one for an advisee who had to drop a summer school course because she’s in the hospital, and one for a student who appeared on the rolls for a short-session summer class but who was misregistered because she was in fact taking another class.”
“That’s a lot of exposition,” Fred says.
“You’d never understand the conversation without it, believe me,” the Author assures him:
“Oh! There ‘e is.”
“Hel-lo, Ma-ry. Um. Um.”
Plate showing “GENRE”.
“Mmm? Mmm?” (The teacher hands her an envelope that was misaddressed and has been returned by the postal service.)
“I was goin-na look that address up, then I thought. . . (incoherent because the teacher breaks in to say),
“Yeah, wouldjoy?… “ (incoherent because both people are talking at once).
“Yeah, and, uh, when you look it up would, uh, (pause) you make a copy of the address for me…”
“So I can correct my records?”
“So, uh…” (sound of opening an envelope) “Oh, God, there’s the bookstore bill.”
“Ho h oho.”
“Uh, oyeah, and then there’s this… “
“I need that. and d’you… didjou… have any records on this Jennie Jones in your…”
“Never, never laid eyes on ‘er.”
“Okay, I need your signature for a drop. She’s actually doing an independent study with Frank Bean…”
“… and it was someone else’s error, but she hasta go through all this Mickey Mouse ‘cause of it.”
“The computers will not handle it otherwise.”
(Long silence while the teacher signs a class drop slip). “Actually, it’s the tenth, but I put down the ninth on, ah, the…”
“Now, whaddo I hafto sign here?”
“Okay, there’s two, two places… the drop slip…”
“Sign the drop slip…”
“Sign it for what?
“Advise… you’re her advisor.”
“Okay. Oyeah, awright.”
“Yuh, the principal agreed and signed it.”
“Uhhuh, ‘at’s right.”
“And advisor here.”
“Yeah, awwmm, I missed Frank… er, y… I dunno what I’m thinkin’ of, God! Jim Bell this morning, so I think I’m gonnoo sign for him. Give this to her father this weekend, and then she can attach her medical statement and mail it right back to the advisement office…”
“I don’t think Jim’ll mind ‘cuz he said he’d go along with anything, he was agreeable.”
“Do we actually talk like that?” Fred asks, bewildered and disgusted.
“No, you don’t, but the rest of us do.”
“It’s amazing that anything gets communicated at all! Thisis one time I’m glad I’m a fictional character.”
“An Irish fictional character,” the Author reminds him. “But people get along because a lot of communication is in context, in knowing each other well, as the secretary and the teacher do, and consequently in being one step ahead of each other most times. And there’s body language… gestures, raised eyebrows, throat clearings, etcetera, etcetera – an actor can do some of those things in a play onstage. In this real-life case the teacher was looking at papers on the secretary’s desk while they were talking.”
“Did she know she was being recorded?”
“Can this conversation be made interesting, or at least coherent?”
Speech 2: edited
“I don’t know,” the Author says. “Let’s give it a try. We’ll have to edit it”:
The teacher strides down the corridor and turns in at the door marked 39. “Oh! There he is” the department secretary says, looking up from her desk. She wears glasses and there is an Irish look about her, especially about her smile. Her hair is curly and reddish brown. She sits behind
her desk working on several stacks of paper.
“Hello, Mary.” The teacher walks to the desk and the secretary hands him three forms.
“Thank is for coming in like this,” Mary says. “I know it’s hot and you’re on vacation, but…”
“Not at all,” the teacher says. “It’s a relief to take a break from vacation once in a while.” He is dressed quite unprofessionally, in shorts and a tank top. “By the way,” he says, “I just pulled this misaddressed envelope out of my mailbox. Can you look up the right address and type a new envelop?” It is extremely hot and humid in the office. A big floor fan whirls the air about, to little effect.
“Oh, sure,” Mary replies. “I was going to look that address up when it came back, then I though, ‘Maybe he’d like to see that the address has been changed,’ so I stuck it in your box instead.”
“Would you go ahead and do that? and when you do, would you make a copy of the address for me so I can correct my records?”
“Surely.” The secretary takes the envelope and, using a letter opener, slices the top open.
“Before I sign these drops,” the teacher says, “let me see what’s in this other envelope… oh, God, it’s the bookstore bill!”
“Ho ho ho.” Mary gives him a commiserating look.
“You think that’s funny, eh?”
“Not really. By the way,” she asks, noticing which of the forms he is looking at, “did you have any records at all on this Jennie Jones? She was misenrolled in her summer presession class.”
“I never heard of her.” The teacher takes out his handkerchief and uses it to wipe the perspiration from his forehead.
“Okay, but I need your signature for a drop anyway. She’s actually doing an independent study with Frank Bean.”
“It was someone else’s error, but she has to go through all this Mickey Mouse red tape because of it. The computers will not handle it otherwise.” Mary shakes her head in pity… for Ms. Jones, or the teacher, or herself… perhaps all three.
“Oops! It’s July tenth,” the teacher says, staring at the form he has just signed, “but I put down the ninth.”
“No matter,” Mary says. “They won’t get it until day after tomorrow anyway.”
“Now, what do I have to sign on these other two forms?”
“First, the drop slip…”
“Sign the drop slip as what?”
“You’re her advisor.”
“The principal agreed and signed it already,” Mary points out with a pencil.
“Oh, yes. I see.”
“And where it says ‘advisor’ on this other form,” she continues. “I have to get Mr. Bell’s signature, too, but I missed him this morning, so I think I’ll sign the form for him, and give it to her father this weekend. Then she can attach her medical statement and mail it right back to the advisement office. I don’t think Mr. Bell will mind because he said he’s go along with whatever needs to be done.”
“Sounds okay to me,” the teacher says. He signs the last form and straightens up. He lays the pencil down on Mary’s desk, and turns to go.
“That’s better,” Fred says, “but it’s still boring.”
Nonconversations 2: exposition
“Because there’s no dramatic tension in it. There’s no story being told; there’s no conflict, not even a protagonist, and I’m sticking exposition into the dialogue, which is not a good thing to do in modern stories, although in early fiction it was a common practice.”
“Got an example of that?”
The Author turns away from the keyboard and reaches into the pile of books behind him. “Here’s a passage from an eighteenth-century short novel, Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia by the British writer Samuel Johnson”:
“Sir,” said Imlac, “my history will not be long: the life that is devoted to knowledge passes silently away, and is very little diversified by events. To talk in public, to think in solitude, to read and to hear, to enquire, and answer enquiries, is the business of a scholar. He wanders about the world without pomp or terror, and is neither known nor valued but by men like himself.
“I was born in the kingdom of Goiama, at no great distance from the fountain of the Nile. My father was a wealthy merchant, who traded between the inland countries of Africa and the ports of the Red Sea. He was honest, frugal, and diligent, but of mean sentiments and narrow comprehension…”
“They actually read stuff like that?” Fred asks.
“Styles and conventions change.”
Tone and style 3: verisimilitude
“Let’s get back to the edited real speech – it’s at least the sort of dialogue you’d find in a story, isn’t it?”
“Is there a term for the technique you used when you edited the transcription of ordinary speech?”
“It’s called verisimilitude.”
“Good grief! Not another one of those foreign terms! What does it mean?”
“It’s Latinate, Fred, but not Latin. It’s still English, and it means ‘lifelike’ – accent on the like. Its intent is to give the impression of real speech.”
“It’s not called ‘realism’?”
“No. Realism was a specific literary program – the idea was to write about ordinary people in ordinary situations, using ordinary language. People like the French writer Gustave Flaubert, the Russian Fyodor Dostoevsky, and the American Stephen Crane, all of them nineteenth-century authors, where realists. In the twentieth century realism turned into a bleaker program, naturalism, which maintained that people’s lives were controlled by outside forces, such as economics or environment, or by people’s inner limitations. Writers such as the Americans Frank Norris and James T. Farrell wrote fiction that was narrated from a particular bleak, deterministic viewpoint.
“Verisimilitude was a style that was used by both the realists and the naturalists. Here’s a passage from The Awakening by the nineteenth-century American realist novelist Kate Chopin; compare it with the Johnson passage above – the setting is the Creole bayou country of Louisiana”:
Mrs. Pontellier liked to sit and gaze at her fair companion as she might look upon a faultless Madonna.
“Could any one fathom the cruelty beneath that fair exterior?” murmured Robert. “She knew that I adored her once, and she let me adore her. It was ‘Robert, come; go; stand up; sit down; do this; do that; see if the baby sleeps; my thimble, please, that I left God knows where. Come and read Daudet to me while I sew.’ “
“Par example! I never had to as. You were always there under my feet, like a troublesome cat.”
“You mean like an adorning dog. And just as soon as Ratignolle appearedon the scene, then it was like a dog. ‘Passez! Adieu! Allez vous-en!’ “
“Perhaps I feared to make Alphonse jealous,” she interjoined, with excessive naivete. That made them all laugh. The right hand jealous of the left! The heart jealous of the soul! But for that matter, the Creole husband is never jealous; with him the gangrene passion is one which has become dwarfed by disuse.
“What a different in style a hundred years makes!” Fred says leaning forward, elbows onhis knees – he is in the Lazyboy again. “That doesn’t sound anything at all like Johnson. What’s going on in fiction these days?”
Tone and style 5: minimalism
“Well, there’s a return to a form of realism going on now in literary fiction called ‘minimalism.’ As Charles Newman put it in an article, ‘What’s Left Out of Literature’ in The New York Times Book Review for Sunday, July 12, 1987. ‘The presumption seems to be that America is a vast fibrous desert in which a few laconic weeds nevertheless manage to sprout in the cracks.’ “
“Sounds sort of the way I feel,” Fred says. “Does that apply to dialogue too?”
“Absolutely. Newman says, ‘In minimal fiction, there has never been such a conscious and largely successful attempt to capture in dialogue the elisions and inadvertent rhythms of everyday colloquial speech… ‘ He gives as an example a passage from Bret Easton Ellis’s first novel, Less Than Zero”:
I drive to Trent’s house, but Trent isn’t there so I sit in his room and put a movie in the Betamax and call Blair and ask her if she wants to do something tonight, go to a club or see a movie and she says she would and I start to draw on a piece of paper that’s next to the phone, recopying phone numbers on it.
“Julian wants to see you,” Blair tells me.
“Yeah, I heard. Did he say what for?”
“I don’t know what he wants to see you about. He just said he has to talk to you.”
“Do you have his number?” I ask.
“That is pretty flat. It sounds sort of like your edited real speech – how does it differ? Can you apply minimalist style to the transcription of the teacher’s conversation with the secretary?”
“Sure. It would go like this”:
The teacher, dressed in shorts and a tank stop, walks down the corridor and turns in at the door marked 39. “There you are,” the department secretary says, looking up from her desk.
“Thanks for coming in like this. It’s hot and you’re on vacation…”
“It’s okay. Oh, I just pulled this misaddressed envelope out of my mailbox. How about looking up the right address and typing a new one?”
“Sure. I was going to look that address up, then I thought…”
“Would you go ahead and do that? And when you do, make a copy of the address for me, okay?”
“”Before I sign those drops, let me see what’s in this other envelope… crap. The bookstore bill!”
“Ho ho ho.”
“You think that’s funny?”
“Did you have any records on this Jennie Jones? She was misenrolled.”
“I never laid eyes on her.”
“Okay, I need your signature for a drop. She’s actually doing an independent study with Frank Bean.”
“It was someone else’s error, but she has to go through all this Mickey Mouse because of it. The computers won’t handle it otherwise.”
“Nuts. It’s July tenth, but it put down the ninth on this slip.”
“Now, what do I have to sign on these other two forms?”
“First, the drop slip…”
“Sign the drop slip as what?”
“You’re her advisor.”
“The principal agreed and signed it.”
“And where it says ‘advisor’ on this other form. I have to get Mr. Bell’ signature, too, but I missed him this morning, so I think I’ll sign the form for him, and give it to her father this weekend. Then she can attach her medical statement and mail it right back to the advisement office. I don’t think Mr. Bell will mind because he said he’d go along with whatever needs to be done.”
“Sounds okay to me.”
“That’s minimal, all right,” Fred says. “Is that what dialogue sounds like in a play?”
Tone and style 6: stage speech
“Because a play takes place on a stage, not in a book lying in your lap. In the book youkan stop, go back, reread a passage to make sure you got it right. But in a play, if you miss something, you’ve missed it. So dialogue in a play must be extremely clear, emphatic, apprehensible as it swiftly passes – that’s going to affect its style, though the tone of a passage is going to be interpreted by the director and the actors, with hints from the playwright’s script, of course.
“You noticed all those pauses and gaps in the unedited transcription?”
“How could I miss them?” Fred asks. “There were more of them than words… at least it seemed so.”
“That’s because in real life we do what we do in reading – we pause to think about things, we stall for time, we ask for things to be repeated, we ask our neighbour what we missed… or we jump ahead because what we’re saying is obvious to the person with whom we are conversing.”
“So a play can’t imitate ordinary conversation even as well as a story can?”
“But it has to seem ordinary… as ordinary as the dialogue in a story or on the street. There has to be a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ on the part of an audience when it enters a theatre. The same is true for the reader of a novel or a story. We have to subscribe to a convention… in fact, to several conventions.”
Tone and style 7: stream of consciousness
“Are there other styles besides verisimilitude and minimalism?” Fred asks, still leaning forward with interest.
“Certainly. The twentieth century has come up with any number of them. I guess, but a couple of the best known are stream of consciousness and surrealism.”
“What’s that first one about?”
Forms of dialogue 4: interior monologue
“Well, the idea there is to have interior monologues in fiction be reasonable facsimiles of the way the mind actually works. We don’t ordinarily think in nice, straightforward sentences – you saw that we don’t even talk that way – but we wander off th subject, drop hints to ourselves, do fuzzy things with our syntax, elide… “
“Leave things out.”
“That’s interior monologues. But can the same thing be done with dialogue?”
“Faulkner tried it in his novel The Sound and the Fury,” the Author points out – “here’s a passage”:
it’s late you go on home
you go on home its late
her clothes rustled I didn’t move they stopped rustling
are you going in like I told you
I didn’t hear anything
yes I will if you want me to I will
I sat up she was sitting on the ground her hands clasped about her knee
go on to the house like I told you
yes I’ll do anything you want me to anything yes
she didn’t even look at me I caught her shoulder and shook her hard
you shut up
I shook her
you shut up you shut up
she lifted her face then I saw she wasn’t even looking at me at all I could see that white rim
I pulled her she was limp I lifted her to her feet
go on now
was Benjy still crying when you left
“That’s even more minimal than minimalism,” Fred says, his mouth agape.
“How do you do that?” the Author asks.
“I’m not doing it, you’re writing it,” Fred replies. “In fiction all things are possible.”
“No,” the Author shakes his head. “In real life, perhaps, all things are possible, but fiction must be truer to life than life.”
“Is that a conundrum?”
Format and punctuation 6
“No, it’s a paradox. That’s essentially what we’re talking about here. For instance, the person who’s thinking those thoughts and saying those things is a retarded person in Faulkner’s novel, and the dialogue and narration are supposed to mirror his mind and perceptions. But of course, in real life a severely retarded person wouldn’t be able to narrate in fiction at all, so Faulkner uses no punctuation and no capitals (except for Caddy’s name, for some reason) to give the impression of an illiterate person.”
“What would the teacher ‘s conversation with the secretary look like treated that way?”
“Let’s check it out,” the Author says:
thanks for coming in like this it’s hot you’re on vacation
it’s okay by the way i just pulled this wrong envelop out can you look up the right address and type a new envelope
hot and sticky in the office big floor fan whirls around
go ahead make a copy of the address for me too
let me see whats in this other envelope o god its the bookstore bill
ho ho ho
you think thats funny
“That’s enough of that!” Fred interjects.
“I’ve never been able to finish the novel myself,” the Author admits, shamefaced.
Tone and style 8: surrealism
“Interesting effect, that,” Fred says. “What’s surrealism?”
“That’s a distortion of reality.”
“You mean that wasn’t distorted?”
“Not in the same way. We might be able to understand that in the 1960s, ‘psychedelic’ – mind-bending.”
“Any writers you can name who used surrealism in fiction?”
“The most famous is probably Franz Kafka. In looking over Kafka’s work, though, I don’t find examples of what I’d call ‘surrealist dialogue’ – the dialogue is more or less ‘normal’; it’s huge beetle in ‘Metamorphosis,’ yet the people continue to speak realistically. The same appears to be true in the work of the Spanish surrealist playwright Federico Garcia Lorca. In the surrealist fantasies of the Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez there’s not much dialogue at all. If you’d like, though, we can try treating the teacher’s conversation with the secretary surrealistically”:
The teacher, dressed in shorts and a tank top, walks down the corridor and turns in at the door marked 39. “There you are,” Mary says, looking out from under her desk.
“Hello, Mary. How’s your picnic going?”
“Thanks for coming in like this.” The teacher notices that Mary is a green frog today. “It’s hot and you’re on vacation,” she croaks. She is eating an insect sandwich.
“It’s okay. Oh, I just pulled this misaddressed codfish out of my mailbox. How about looking up the right address and hooking a new one for me?”
“Sure. I was going to look that address up, then I thought…”
“Thought is an exercise in anguish,” the teacher says, joining Mary under her desk. “May I have a bit of that?”
“Help yourself,” Mary says handing him the hoagie roll. The insect is an Egyptian scarab. It looks out angrily at the teacher and he bites it gingerly. “Would you go ahead and do that then? And when you do, make a copy of the address for me, okay?” The scarab is fighting back.
“Before I sign those, let me see what’s in this other envelope… oh, no. A Venus flytrap.”
“Ho ho ho.”
“You think that’s funny?”
“Not really,” Mar says. “It’s just my sister-in-law. I was wondering when she was getting back from vacation. By the way, did you have any records on this Jennie Jones? She was misenrolled.”
“I never laid a tentacle on her.”
“You want to give me a break?” Fred asks. “That’s just ridiculous. It’s nonsense, not surrealism.”
“Well, you wanted to know. Now we both know why there’s not a lot of unusual dialogue in surrealist fiction, or drama either, for that matter. The distortion of reality is in the situation, primarily, though there is a formula for turning an ordinary sentence into a surrealist sentence that might work with dialogue as well.”
“What’s that?” Fred asks.
“Exchange the subject of the sentence for the object. For instance, ‘I gave the gorilla a large banana’ would become, ‘I gave the banana a large gorilla’; or, ‘Look! The meat is eating the lion!’ “
His head shakes Fred with distaste, causing his eyes to fall down over his hair. “That doesn’t appear to be a very promising technique,” he says, “either in a play or a story. But the way, did I understand you to say that a play can’t imitate ordinary conversation even as well as a story can?”
“No. I meant to say that in both fiction and in drama dialogue has to seem ordinary… as ordinary as the dialogue heard on the street, but it has to be clearer than in a story, more emphatic, and there has to be a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ on the part of an audience when it enters a theatre. The same is true for the reader of a novel or a story. We have to subscribe to a convention… in fact, to several conventions.”
“Name some,” Fred says.
“Well, we have to begin with drama, then, because, as we noted in the introduction, the oldest form of fiction is the epic poem, and the second oldest is drama. The oldest form of drama that we know about in the Western world is classic tragedy. Aristotle was the first critic to study the extant plays and to distill from them certain conventions that had already been developed by playwrights. The first had to do with the ability of the audience to suspend the knowledge that they were sitting in a theatre rather than experiencing vicariously what was happening on the ‘stage.’ Aristotle noticed that most plays exhibited what he identified as ‘the three unites’ of time, place, and action.
“The ‘unity of time’ is more evident in the theatre than on the page. Members of the audience are seated in a hall and they always know, at least unconsciously, that they are spending several hours looking at a play. If we ask them to believe that during two or three hours of theatre time, a lifetime of stage time is passing, they will tend to disbelieve the relative possibility. But if they are asked to believe that during two or three hours of theatre time a single day of stage time elapses – twenty-four hours, the relative time lapse is much more believable, and this is the reason for the convention, in tragedy, of the unity of time.”
“You know, that actually makes sense.” Fred nods his head firmly. “How about the unity of place?”
“It’s physically difficult to keep changing scenes on stage to indicate different settings. In modern times this difficulty has been overcome to a degree, but in antiquity plays were enacted in open-air amphitheaters. There were no overhead flies for the storage of backdrops, no projectors for throwing films or slides on a screen. Thus, a willing suspension of disbelief was more likely to take place if the audience were asked to believe that the isolation of the convention of the unity of place.”
“All right!” Fred says. “Let’s have the unity of action now.”
“Aristotle noticed that every action in tragedy has been beginning, a middle, and an end, each of proper proportion – neither too large or to be seen whole, nor too small to be seen clearly.”
“And that’s it?” Fred asks. “It’s that simple?”
“What’s your point – that the rules hold for fiction as well as drama?”
“Well, those rules haven’t ’held’ throughout the centuries, but they’re good ‘rules of thumb’ – touchstones, as it were. There’ve been a lot of changes in entertainment over the centuries, particularly physical and technological changes. New forms of drama and storytelling have been invented – audio forms of various types including radio and recordings; audio-visual forms as well – cinema and television, for instance. There have even been several revolutions in recent centuries in the print media; during the past quarter-century the changes have been both numerous and spectacular.”
“You keep making the connection between drama and dialogue in fiction,” Fred says, sounding a bit like Nan Deditter, “but is there some real relevance here, or it is just a mania of yours?”
“Before I answer that question,” the Author remarks, turning again to lean past the hovering Foyle for a book on the floor, “let me just quote you this passage of dialogue from Arthur C. Clarke’s novel, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Hal, remember, is a computer”:
“This is Betty. Start pumping sequence.”
“Pumping sequence started,” repeated Hal. At once, Poole could hear the throbbing of the pumps as precious air was sucked out of the lock chamber. Presently, the thin metal of the pod’s external shell made crinkling, crackling noises, then, after about five minutes, Hall reported:
“Pumping sequence concluded.”
Poole made a final check of his tiny instrument panel. Everything was perfectly normal.
“Open outer door,” he ordered.
“That’s a great novel!” Fred breathes. He sits back in the Lazyboy.
“No, it isn’t.”
Fred jerks forward. “What are youtalking about? Sure it is!”
“It’s a great movie, remember?”
Fred says nothing. At last – “What’s your point?”
“I have a friend, the Scottish novelist Campbell Black, who novelizes screenplays under a pseudonym or two or three. There’s lots of money in it.”
Dollar signs click on in Fred’s eyes. The Author continues, “It says on the jacket of this book, ‘A Novel by Arthur C. Clarke, Based on a Screenplay by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke.’ ”
Fred nods. “So it started out as a play, a script. That’s what you were hinting at when you talked about My Fair Lady a while back, isn’t it? But doesn’t the route usually go the other way? I mean,” Fred clears his throat, “don’t stories usually get turned into screenplays or dramas or whatever?”
The Author shrugs. “Sure, but it doesn’t have to – all roads run two ways. Why don’t we check fiction-to-fiction-screenplay first, though? Here’s a bit of chapter two of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. A truckdriver has just finished eating”:
In the restaurant the truck driver paid his bill and put his two nickels’ change in a slot machine. The whirling cylinders gave him no score. “They fix ‘em so you can’t win nothing,” he said to the waitress.
And she replied, “Guy took the jackpot not two hours ago. Three-eighty he got. How soon you gonna be back by?”
He held the screen door a little open. “Week-ten days,” he said. “Got to make a run to Tulsa, an’ I never get back soon as I think.”
She said crossly, “Don’t let the flies in. either go out or come in.”
“So long,” he said, and pushed his way out. The screen door banged behind him… “Well, don’t do nothing you don’t want me to hear about.” The waitress was turned toward a mirror on the back wall. She grunted a reply…
The hitch-hiker stood up and looked across through the windows. “Could ya give me a lift, mister?”
The driver looked quickly back at the restaurant for a second. “Didn’t you see the No Riders sticker on the win’shield?”
“Sure – I seen it. But sometimes a guy’ll be a good guy even if some rich bastard makes him carry a sticker.”
“And here’s the same scene which begins the screenplay by Nunnally Johnson”:
Waitress. When you be back?
Driver. Couple of weeks. Don’t do nothin’ you wouldn’t want me to hear about!
We see him climbing into the cab of the truck from the right side. Getting behind the wheel, he is releasing the handbrake when Tom appears at the driver’s seat window.
Tom. How about a lift, mister?
Driver. Can’t you see that sticker?
He indicates a “No Riders” sticker on the windshield.
Tom. Sure I see it. But a good guy don’t pay no attention to what some heel makes him stick on his truck.
“That’s pretty close,” Fred says.
“Remember, though, that Johnson has already cut out the whole first chapter of Steinbeck’s book. The screenplay is going to be a considerably compressed version of the novel. But there’s no reason in the world why a story written entirely in dialogue can’t be told using the techniques of fiction, and it’s done often these days. Generally speaking, the process if going to be reversed – drama is going to have to be expanded when it’s turned into fiction.”
Nonconversation 3: silence in dialogue
“Sure. Let’s invent a short experimental play that, though it’s set up as a dialogue, is really a monologue plus silence.”
“You heard me,” the Author says. “We have two characters, one named Pocoangelini and the other named Mr. Earth. The scene is a beach or some other sandy spot. It’s night, and Mr. Earth is making like an ostrich.”
“His head is buried in the sand.”
“That’s a myth,” Fred says.
“Not in this play, it’s not. Note that, on the page, the spaces between the speeches are going to vary to indicate shorter or longer silence”:
Pocoangelini. Sir. Your head. It is stuck into the sand.
Pocoangelini. I’m not sure I understand. You hear me, don’t you, even with both your earholes squat up against those furrow? I say, YOUR HEAD IS STUCK IN A BRAIN’S HARROWING! There’s dirt up your nose, and ants are crawling about your neck.
YOUR HEAD’S STUCK IN THE FILTHY SAND!
Pocoangelini. The moon is out. It’s playing with your spine. The shafts of starfire are sticking into your shoulderblades, making you appear to be a sort of celestial porcupine. What are you looking for? What colour is the inside? Have you found whether stones push eachother when they are together alone?
Pocoangelini. Look. I’ll scoop you out so we can talk like human beings. It’s a cold night. Your thoughts must be chilly. This is no hour for such silver. I’ll dig. Now pull, and tell me…
“That’s as absurd as that ridiculous surrealist dialogue,” Fred says.
“Absolutely true,” the Author replies; “in fact, it’s called ‘theatre of the absurd,” but we won’t discuss that topic here. We’ll just turn it into fiction”:
As he was walking along the moonlit beach Pocoangelini stopped suddenly in amazement. Could it be…? Yes, it was! It was somebody kneeling on the shore, his head buried in the sand. He walked closer. The moonlight made everything look like quicksilver and ebony. When he reached the figure, Pocoangelini stopped and leaned forward. “Sir,” he said politely. “Your head. It is stuck into the sand.”
Pocoangelini waited, but all he could here was the sound of the tide coming in. “I’m not sure I understand,” he said. “You hear me, don’t you, even with both your earholes squat up against those furrows?” He leaned closer, his hand clasped behind his back. “I say, Your head is stuck in a brain’s harrowing. There’s dirt up your nose, and ants are crawling about your neck. Your head’s stuck in the filthy sand.”
Still there was no reply, only the wind rustling the reeds. Pocoangelini cleared his throat. “The moon is out. It’s playing with your spine. The shafts of starfire are sticking into your shoulderblades, making you appear to be a sort of celestial porcupine.” He paused a moment and straighted up. “What are you looking for? What colour is the inside? Have you found whether stones push each other when they are together alone?”
Pocoangelini stood listening for a long while, waiting in the quiet sounds of surf and breeze. The moon scudded overhead like a schooner. At last he too knelt on the beach. “Look, I’ll scoop you out so we can talk like human beings,” he said. “It’s a cold night. Your thoughts must be chilly. This is no hour for such silver. I’ll dig. Now pull, and tell me…”
“That’s another tour de force,” Fred says, “and it’s not really a story.”
“No, it’s an episode.”
“Are there any well-known examples of dialogue utilizing silence?”
“How about the opening of Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer?” –
“What’s gone with that boy, I wonder? You TOM!”
The old lady pulled her spectacles down and looked over them about the room; then she put them up and looked out under them. She seldom or never looked through them for so small a thing as a boy; they were her state pair, the pride of her heart, and were built for “style,” not service – she could have seen through a pair of stove-lids just as well. She looked perplexed for a moment, and then said, not fiercely, but still loud enough for the furniture to hear:
“Well, I lay if I get hold of you I’ll – “
She did not finish, for by this time she was bending down and punching under the bed with the broom, and so she needed breath to punctuate the punches with. She resurrected nothing but the cat.
“I never did see the beat of that boy!”
She went to the open door and stood in it and looked out among the tomato vines and “jimpson” weeds that constituted the garden. No Tom. So she lifted up her voice at an angle calculated for distance and shouted:
There was a slight noise behind her and she turned just in time to seize a small boy by the slack of his roundabout and arrest his flight.
Fred Foyle is silent for a moment. Then he breathes deeply and says, “That’s just wonderful writing! Even though Tom Sawyer hasn’t said anything yet, you know what he’s like; you know what his aunt is like, you’ve got the scene –“
The Author nods, grinning into the monitor. “It was the first book I fell in love with when I was a kid. But why don’t we turn a short play into a whole story so we can see the process of novelizing worked out completely, even though it’s going to be on a small scale? This is a little play I wrote when I was about twenty years old, I guess it was.”
“Don’t say it, Fred,” the Author admonishes his fictive friend. “The playlet was called ‘Barrow Yard’ “:
Scene: A railroad trestle on the outskirts of a city. There is a fine beneath it. Two hoboes sit side by side, tending a pot of stew on the flames. It is night, a trifle misty.
Hobo. Hmph! I wonder when that ox will show. He’s slow. And dumb as hell. Y’know, there’s times I wish we hadn’t gone and let him feed with us that night back in…
Tramp. And yet you know damn well there ain’t a friggin’ thing we could’ve done. He saw our fire, and bing! there he was, standin’ in the firelight. It’ll probably be the same damn thing tonight – he’ll stand there, sayin’ not a single word till we invite him over. It’s sure weird the way he acts – almost like he was nuts.
Hobo. You gotta admit he’s got a lot of guts, though. Did you see him in that whoppin’ fight they had down at the Yard? That boy’s all right when it comes to flingin’ fists. I wouldn’t want to block his way when he’s out on a ‘jaunt’!
Suddenly there are noises in the underbrush, rough and fast.
Tramp. Ssst! Knock it off. I think I hear ‘im comin’!
Hobo. He’s makin’ lots of noise. Hell! I think he’s runnin’! There he is – !
The sounds crease. In the glow of the fire stands the figure of a huge man. He takes a couple of heavy strides forward.
Hobo. (Softly) He’s makin’ straight for you.
Again the great figure stops, gazes dully at the tramp. An atmosphere of tension and a taut silence settles over the trio. The tramp makes an effort to dispel the quiet and divert the gaze of the newcomer.
Tramp. Hi, Jake. Dig in an’ grab a bowl of stew, boy. Looks like you worked up a little sweat. Do you good to smoke a butt and set around for just a while. Been at the Yard?
Tramp. You see Chuck Walters there? (He snickers.) He’s a card!
Hobo. He’s two of ‘em – Jack-Ace! – y’get it, Jake?
The two vagrant feign laughter. Not a flicker of expression touches Jake’s face.
Tramp. Seddown, boy. Here, just let me up an’ make a pot of coffee…
Jake. I just killed a man.
There is silence again. Several moments pass. The hobo makes an attempt to nonchalance.
Hobo. Who was it, Jake? You get into a fight, or something?
Jake. Naw, this here is just my night.
Tramp. Your night for what?
Jake. It’s just my night.
Hobo. Watch it!
Jake leaps. The knife in his hand reflects red light from the fire.
Hobo. That shiv!
Tramp. I got ‘im.
Tramp. He’s hit – he’s down. My god! I told you he was nutty as a friggin’ chestnut tree! It looks like he’s out cold.
Hobo. He’s dead.
Hobo. When y’hit ‘im with that board you caved in ‘is skull.
There is the sound of a train rumbling over the trestle and the wind sharpening among its girders. A few drops of rain fall sizzling into the embers of the fire.
Tramp. Huh! Dead! (Pause.) Well, let’s both head for Barrow Yard. It’s cloudin’ over, soon be rainin’ like hell.
“That’s about as minimal a narrative as I can imagine,” Fred Foyle says leaning over the printer. When the last sheet has rolled out of the daisy wheel he picks it up and takes it to his chair with him. “It’s nothing but dialogue and a few lines of scene-setting. It is realism or naturalism?” he asks. The Author doesn’t reply – he is absorbed in something he sees on the monitor. “Well, whichever,” Fred continues. “It’s colloquial diction and base style, and you utilize silence in it. What’s going to happen now?”
Transcription and adaption
The Author comes to and cocks his head to look over at Fred in the Lazyboy. “I promised you a transcription and adaptation to fiction of ‘Barrow Yard.’ “
“You actually turned that little episode into a story?”
“Yes. It’s the second piece in a small trilogy called ‘Shipmates,’ all three of which are frame narratives – remember that?”
Fred nods. “It’s that Joseph Conrad viewpoint from Heart of Darkness.”
“Right. And the setting here is also aboard a ship, in this case a gun mount on an old carrier, the U.S.S. Hornet, circa the early 1950s, at night. Some sailors are sitting around drinking coffee and telling stories.”
“You were quite a copycat when you were young, weren’t you?” Fred asks.
“Maybe,” the Author replies hunching his shoulders defensively, “but I was really in the Navy then, though I wrote the story version later. If I did imitate, it’s not a bad way of learning how to do something – take a model and see how well you can do the same thing. But that’s certainly not what I was doing consciously when I adapted this little play.”
THE YEOMAN’S STORY
“I ran away from home when I was sixteen,” Yeoman Fairall said when the Bo’sun had finished talking. It was hard to see in the dark, but the gun lay in silhouette against the stars, and here and there the outline of a sailor lounging on the mount. The ship and the sea made their noises.
“I hadn’t been on the road long before I feel in with an old hobo named Duke, a younger one named Corky, and Jake. I don’t know how to describe Jake. Duke had some education, but he wouldn’t talk much about his past. I had to pry it out of him over a period of time.
“One night he sat looking into the fire and he said to himself for the umpteen-thousandth time, ‘It’s logical.’ He always began by being amazed at his presence in a place like that – an abandoned brickyard on the outskirts of some town somewhere on the prairies, or in the South, or anywhere else. But when he’d asked himself how he’d gotten where he was and had retraced his route from its beginning to a particular campfire, he always ended by saying the same thing: ‘It’s logical.’ Duke was proud of only one thing – that his mind hadn’t deteriorated, along with about everything else, over the years.
“He raised his eyes from the fire. In the falling dusk we could see the walls of the old brickworks surrounding us, the caved-in stacks of brick, pretty well raided by the population of the dying town, the faded lettering painted on the side of a broken-down building that formed one side of the place: BARROW YARD. BRICKS AND BUILDING MATERIALS. WHOLESALE ONLY.
“Duke dropped his eyes to the fire again, and I could see he was letting his mind walk back along that old road. There was the growing up, in good shape, in Illinois – a small city near Chicago – just before the war. He had had some ambition then. And there had been the couple of years of college before Pearl Harbor. It looked like he was going someplace in those days – his father’s small factory was waiting for him. Elise was waiting for him, too.
“Elise had still been waiting for him when he got back from the Pacific, but there had been no time to finish his degree, because of his father’s death in ‘forty-four, just before Duke’s return. And there’d been the business slump that hit a few marginal industries during the shift to a post-war economy. The plant, engaged in war work for a few years, had put its profits into expansion, and when the fighting ended there was nothing left to pump into another changeover.
“Duke was under a lot of pressure in those days, and he hadn’t been very well prepared to walk out of Guam and the Philippines into Illinois and take on the job of saving the family firm.
“No wonder his marriage hadn’t lasted, especially after Elise miscarried their first child. After that it had been a steep slope downhill for Duke – business failure, his mother’s broken health and her death grieving over the smash of everything. She had had only the single son.
“Then the heavy drinking for a few years, and the waking, one morning, to find himself staring into the flames of the first campfire and asking himself how he had gotten where he was. And, of course, the answer.
“Duke nodded. ‘It’s logical,’ he said to himself again.
“ ‘What is?’ Duke looked up to see Corky approaching the first with a stack of wood. Corky dropped the pile nearby and squatted to warm his hands. ‘What’s logical?’ he asked again.
“Corky was heavy, dressed in jeans and an old leather jacket. Corky’s presence was logical too – he was on the run from something, none of us had bothered to ask what. We didn’t want to know. Duke lifted a hand to run it over his face, rough with stubble, thin and hollow. He shrugged. ‘Us,’ he said.
“Corky grunted, like he always did. I guess it irritated him when Duke went into his memory routine. ‘Not to change the subject,’ he said, ‘but when’s Jake going to show. I wonder. He’s been gone a long time. Maybe one of us should’ve gone with him.’
“Duke shrugged again. ‘He’ll be back.’
“I sure hope he brings some grub.’ Corky liked to talk, but he was quiet for a time, and we watched the fire crackle and cast strange figures into the dusk and the thin mist that was settling on the Yard.
“ ‘I’ve got a feeling we better not wait,’ Corky said finally. ‘I got a surprise I been saving.’ He got up, went over toward the gate of the Yard, and came back with a paper bag. He squatted again and opened it. ‘I ran across a truck garden while I was out looking for wood.’
“We looked in and saw vegetables – carrots, cabbages, celery, some small potatoes. ‘Not bad,’ Duke said. He reached over to his pack and got the pan he always carried, and a box of salt. ‘There’s a stream near here. I’ll get some water and you start on the vegetables.’
“He got up and went through the gate. It was still barely light enough for him to make his way down to the woods, but he had to go carefully. By the time he got back Corky and I had finished paring. Duke arranged the pan in the fire, salted the water, and we threw in the vegetables. We sat awhile smelling the aroma that started to rise from the stew.
“Finally Corky broke the quiet. ‘Man, that Jake is slow,’ he said. ‘And dumb. I hope he brings some meat. There’s times I wish we hadn’t of gone and let him feed with us that night.’
“ ‘You know damn well there’s not a thing we could’ve done about it,’ Duke said. ‘He saw our fire, and then there he was, standing in the light. Probably be the same thing tonight. He’ll stand there saying nothing till we invite him over.’ Duke shook his head. ‘It’s sure strange, the wayhe acts.’
“ ‘Yeah, but you got to admit he’s got a lot of guts.’ Corky’s voice showed his admiration. He stirred the pot. ‘Remember the fight in the freightyard when that yardman found us outside Denver? That boy’s all right in a pinch.’
“ ‘Knock it off,’ Duke said. ‘I think I hear him coming.’
“We listened. From the direction of the woods there were noises in the brush, hard and fast. Corky looked up. ‘He’s sure making a racket.’ We listened again. ‘Hell,’ he said, ‘I think he’s running.’
“The crackling noises stopped, and we could hear heavy footsteps slowing down, coming across the packed dirt of the yard, but it was too dark by then to see much. Then there was that huge man in the glow of the fire. He took a couple of steps forward.
“Corky said it low – ‘He’s making straight for you, Duke.’
“We saw Jake stop and gaze down at Duke, who got to feeling uncomfortable after a while. He cleared his throat. ‘Hi, Jake,’ he said. I guess something told him not to ask about the meat. ‘Dig in and grab a little stew, boy. Looks as though you’ve worked up quite a sweat. Do you good to smoke a butt and sit around for a while. Where you been?’
“ ‘In town,’ Jake said. His voice was thick and gravelly. He just stood there and looked at Duke. We couldn’t see a trace of expression on Jake’s face, only the fire flickering on it. Duke got up.
“ ‘Seddown, boy. Here, just let me make a pot of coffee.’ He started for his pack.
“ ‘I just killed a man,’ Jake said.
“We all froze, and there was quiet again. Corky said something finally. He tried to make it sound offhand. ‘Who was it, Jake? You get into a fight or something?’
“ ‘Naw,’ Jake said. ‘This here is just my night.’
“Corky got up too, and I started to edge back from the fire. ‘Your night for what, Jake?’ Corky asked.
“ ‘It’s just my night.’
“ ‘Watch out!’ Corky yelled.
“Duke saw Jake coming, the glint of metal in his hand. He dived just in time. The knife tore through a trailing flap of his jacket. Jake’s lung took him past his target, and before he could get his balance again, Corky’s jackknife went whirling through the air.
“The jackknife didn’t do much damage – the blade caught Jake over the eye, and he started bleeding some, but he turned on Corky who was crouching on the opposite side of the fire. As Jake started to jump, Duke came up off the ground with something in his hand; he raised it over his head two-handed and brought it down, hard.
“ ‘Hell!’ Corky yelled, ‘you got him.’
“Jake fell into the fire, knocking over the stew, sending sparks blowing upward into the dark.
“I croaked out, ‘He’s down!’
“ ‘Jesus,’ Duke said. Almost in a reflex he bent down and rolled Jake out of the ashes. Corky and I knelt and helped him slap out the spots in Jake’s clothes where they had begun to smolder. ‘Nutty as a fruitcake,’ Duke said. His voice, I noticed, was trembling. ‘Looks like he’s out cold.’
“Corky looked up. ‘He’s dead.’
“ ‘That two-by-four – it stove in his skull. You must’ve really bashed him.’
“In the distance there was a diesel horn blowing. The wind was coming up, and a few drops of rain fell sizzling into the embers of the fire. Duke couldn’t register it.
“ ‘It’ll soon be raining hard.’ Corky said. ‘We better take care of Jake before we do anything else. Gimme a hand.’
“I could see Duke was standing there looking for his old answer, but it wouldn’t come. That time it wouldn’t come. It wouldn’t come for me, either, and the three of us split up that night, fast. So here I am,” Fairall said. He stopped talking, and there was the sea again, underneath it all.
“There it is again, in the last sentence,” Fred says, the ‘frame.’ “
“What’s the effect of framing a monologue this way, inside a limited author-orientation narrative?”
“It gives the reader the sense that he is present while the stories are being told, as though he were a member of the audience board the ship – it’s an inclusive effect. You sure added a lot to that bare-bones narrative.”
“The main thing that was added is the frame narrator. For the rest of it, the characters were better-differentiated, given histories, and the setting and atmosphere were specified.”
“And you upgraded syntax and diction to a degree.”
“Yes. Take for instance these sentences in ‘Barrow Yard’ spoken by the tramp: ‘… and yet you know damn well there ain’t a friggin’ thing we could’ve done. He saw our fire, and bing! there he was, standing in the firelight.’ In ‘The Yeoman’s Story’ the tramp becomes Duke, who is a better-educated person with a middle-class background. The equivalent sentences read, ‘ “You know damn well there’s not a thing we could’ve done about it,” Duke said. “He saw our fire, and then there he was, standing in the light.” ‘ “
©Andrea MarshallDodgson 1973