Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Dialogue and Context: The Stuff of Fiction, Part 2

Back to The Stuff of Fiction (2006). In chapter three, Bauer tackles dialogue. This is the best section in the book. If you don't read any of the other chapters, at least grab a copy at the library and read his thoughts on dialogue. Bauer argues that a common mistake of writers is to forget the reader, the person eavesdropping on every exchange between the characters. The dialogue is intended for the reader and must always advance the narrative rather than diminish to meaningless exchanges. When using dialogue, the writer is signaling to readers that important information follows and that the reader should pay close attention. If the dialogue is mundane, the reader will likely decide to go elsewhere. Bauer notes that it is easy to imagine very realistic exchanges between characters that are ultimately pointless to the story. For example:

"I'm home. How are you?"
"Oh, I'm fine. How about you?"
"Great! What's for dinner?"
"Pot roast."
"That sounds yummy."

That does little more than take up space. However, the exchange would take on a whole new level of importance if the answer to the dinner question was not pot roast but the paperboy. In that case you would be contrasting the mundane with the horrific and warrant your reader's attention.

Bauer argues that much of our talk is repetitive and mundane. It's a fallacy to assume that ideal dialogue is a faithful transcript of real talk. He suggests imagining how people talk when they know someone is listening and they are trying to impress the eavesdropper.

Bauer insists that writers must understand the private agenda--set of beliefs and desires--that each character brings to a conversation. Characters do not fully answer questions but do so to the extent it satisfies their personal agendas. The writer must understand how the characters think before he can show the confrontation of their self-interests in their verbal exchanges. Second, good dialogue balances between giving the reader too much and not enough information. The reader "gets enough to sense the general drift, while working to connect the conversational dots; reaching for and grasping the subterranean logic" (p. 47). More is revealed as the dialogue unfolds.
The next chapter addresses context. Bauer states that fictional narrative can be divided into two categories: foreground and background. Foreground covers the immediate activity of a scene: the conversation, actions, and thoughts or feelings of characters about what is happening. Background takes in everything else, including past and future events, the history of the locale in which a story is set, and the biographies, personalities, and ambitions of the characters. A story's context is mined from all that background material. Borrowing from E. M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel, Bauer makes a further distinction between story and plot. Story is a string of events arranged in temporal sequence. Plot is a story with the addition of causality. Adding causality, Bauer argues, introduces context. While a story prompts readers to ask "and then what happened", a plot leads readers to ask "why". A plot still needs the forward momentum of a story, but context has enriched it.

To appreciate plot, readers must use their memories and intelligence to make the causal connections. This requirement applies to writers as well. The writer must be always aware of the context the preceding narrative has created. Failing to pay attention to the context will lead to characters doing things that are implausible or impossible. Bauer uses the example of a character who is holding a roast turkey and then gives someone a hug without putting down the turkey. More subtle cases would include characters acting against their beliefs with no explanation of why they have changed their minds. Bauer argues that writers should not consider context a burden but "a generous aid, serving your imagination in helping to present the options open to you as the inventor of a story" (p. 72). 

Lastly, Bauer comments on the earned surprise, the moment during reading "when something is said or something happens that we did not quite see coming" (p. 80). However, for the surprise to be earned, it must fit into the logic and context of the narrative. It must grow out of the context of events and character traits such that on reflection, the surprise is not only credible but inevitable.

1 comment:

  1. On the other hand, too little dialouge makes the story feel compacted. Sometimes you need seemingly meaningless dialouge to build the scene.