Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Writing in Elliptical Motion

Compelling dialogue rarely progresses in a logical, step-wise fashion. Rather, it contains a duality-- a line drive structure on the surface and an elliptical motion below.  Furthermore, there always exists a "break" in the linear movement.

You probably remember the exercise where someone asks you to adentify a serious of shapes:

The first you identified as a square; the second as a triangle; and the third you may have incorrectly called a circle. A circle doesn't have a gap in it-- your mind completed this one.  It "jumped the gap" in order to make the circular image fit with the others.  Good dialogue does the same thing.  The little gaps propel the dialogue
forward to the next idea.  These dialectic gaps, like the broken circle, are filled in by the imagination of the character who is listening.

Leave Room for the Insanity
Early in my career, playwright Joe Besecker urged me to leave more room for the insanity of my characters.  Over time I came to understand that insanity isn't a disconnect from reality; nor is it about the character's perculiarities and quirks (though garden variety insanity often expresses itself in disconnects and quirks).  It's about our inherent, irrational nature wreaking havoc on our everyday interactions.  We fall prey to it even in the most mundane conversations.  A line, statement, or question always has some earlier reference that colors it.  Because the characters arrive on stage with a history.  When two characters know each other well, that history can be shared; but even strangers carry a history into their conversations.  "Could you take out the trash?" carries the history of all the trash takings, of who got up at 2am to care for the baby, of who works longer hours or makes more money.  In real life those histories are (hopefully) dealth with and put to bed long before the simple question of trash is raised.  In the theatre, we only ask questions where the history is still raw-- where it is a driving force in the direction of the relationship.  And that history creates the elliptical motion of dialogue.  The line, statement, or question arcs backwards to collect the history of the character and then jumps forward into its expression. If you can pardon this poor drawing, the movement of dailogue looks more like this:
 The "Line" is the statement or question of the speaker. The listener connects it to their history, pushes it forward, and thus their reply is to both the speaker's words/subtext and their own history. The logic of the reply skips forward because now they are talking about two things.

Examine the language of Pinter.  It's incredibly jumpy and elliptical-- in ways that are often absolutely electric.  For those unfamiliar with his work, the size of the gaps can grow so large that Pinter tires out his audience who are left wondering what the characters are talking about.

Now look at Mamet's early work: it's highly repetitive, but at the same time the repetitions draw and build upon the characters' history and jump in their own manner.

As an example, consider the following bit of dialogue from Vigilance (yes, sooner or later I was bound to work our current production into the post).  The scene begins with Duncan proclaiming that he built the house Marla lives in.  He goes on to say that he never dreamed he would be living in one of those houses himself.  This follows:

  MARLA:  You live in Woodland Hills?
  DUNCAN:  2525 Stanford.
  MARLA:  You're... you won the house?
  DUNCAN: That's right.
  MARLA:  Well, congratulations.  I thought you owned a... uh....
  DUNCAN: Tattoo shop.  That's right.  I do some work on the side for my cousin.
  MARLA:  Building houses?
  DUNCAN:  Useta.  Back when I had to get my hands dirty.

This simple exchange is filled with dialectic jumps and ellipses. Take the first three lines: without ever discussing it, we learn that Duncan has newly arrived to Woodland Hills, and that there is some "issue around how he took possession of the house.  The issue has to do with him as a person-- Marla starts to refer to him and then switches to more objective, balanced language ("you're this" versus "you did this").  During the short exchange, the language-- and the silences-- are filled with judgement.  That's the history of their relationship, even though this is the first time they've met.  Notice when they speak in polite, complete sentences, and when they fragment and jump. A clear example is when Marla asks "Building houses?" and Duncan replies "Useta." He provides information not asked for.  The answer is both "yes" and the time frame, delivered in a slightly blunt manner.  He, in fact, chooses not to say yes directly.  At two points in the dialogue he implies yes, avoiding the opportunity to openly affirm Marla-- first when he could have said "yes I live at 2525 Stanford," and here when he might have answered "yes, back when I had to get my hands dirty."  These two aren't enemies yet, but they suspect they might become enemies.

Is this an example of compelling dialogue? I'll leave that to others to decide. But its a clear example of what I mean by jumps and elliptical structure. Are these characters "insane?" Do we see something irrational in their responses?  To compare, let's re-write the dialogue without the jumps:

  MARLA:  Do you live in Woodland Hills?
  DUNCAN: Yes, I live at 2525 Stanford.
  MARLA:  You're the one who won the house?
  DUNCAN:  That's right.
  MARLA:  Well congratulations.  I thought you owned a tattoo shop?
  DUNCAN:  That's right.  I do some work on the side for my cousin.
  MARLA:  Building houses for him?
  DUNCAN:  Yes. Back when I had to get my hands dirty.

We learn the same information, but do we have the same sense of the characters? Of how they feel about this information? Does it have the same energy?  Tension?  At this point, are we as the audience settling into our chairs for a long scene, or alert to the possibility that things may change in an instant?

So how does one make elliptical choices in their writing?  There are numerous ways to approach this, but most important is to know your characters.  The ellipses/jumps must come from them. Consider how they feel about each other and what they're saying... and then don't say it.  Reflect it.  Embrace that even strangers often know the end of each other's sentences and thoughts.  And choose moments in time with real stakes behind them.  In the above scene between Marla and Duncan, neither character has an overarching objective; there are no big goals or conflicts.  This 30 second fragment of dialogue is about testing.  Their goal is to understand each other. They're listening and responding. But their history and their instincts tell them that the other is about to become a sworn enemy.  And they do.

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Anonymous Brian said...

It is a good post with interesting points, many of which I agree with. Certainly we have not been thrilled about their charging us credit card processing, which is absurd.

I do not agree about the "Today Only" because it is effective if one plans ahead. We use it for previews and the first week of the run only. Otherwise, you are correct, you are cannibalizing yourself. There is something to be said for a service that will front page promote your 50-70 seat show over whatever is happening on Best of Broadway.

That might be where I have questions re: your POV. Yes, there is danger here - but the advantage of being on the amazon.com of theatre is the same for the indie book seller that wont get picked up by Simon & Schuster-- how else do you get to those 100,000 people? My Google Grants freebie of $1 bid, text only, gets me a few clicks a week. I throw Facebook a few bucks a day, but cannot afford more. My own website a couple hundred hits a day, my snail-mail list is 3.5k, email is 6.5k. We cannot buy lists, so how do we reach those who do not know how to find us, or even know they should find us?

I have this argument with concerned people on our end all the time, but until they can tell me how to replace this traffic, I have to embrace it. But one does have to plan, find ways to extract contact info (try giving away a bottle of wine, or a pair of tickets, at intermission and watch those email addresses fly in), and use it wisely. Just like any other tool. We do track (or try to) when Goldstar patrons turn into our own patrons (i.e. they buy a subscription or a single ticket) We also track return Goldstar names. Most of the time, these patrons are new. A percentage repeat thru GS. And an acceptable # have become converts to our own single ticket sales or even subscription.

I would actually argue that Goldstar has greatly helped small theatre. The marketplace is what it is - and it is very hard to get new patrons to new, obscure work, especially if it isn't a niche show. The trouble here is we cannot do a control group, and see what you would have made on the show w/o them. Would those "today only" people have taken the chance on your show anyway? It is very hard to prove one way or the other. What we all have to do is not get addicted to these sites, and use them wisely.

March 1, 2012 at 2:06 PM  
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