Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Turn of the Screw: Dialog that does things

First, before we delve into this week's writing lesson from The Turn of the Screw, two fascinating and unrelated points:

1. You may be the sort of person who's relieved to know that, unlike in the first post, I've settled on italics for the novella's title.

2. While searching the e-text for the word "arm," because the section I want to focus on contains that word, I counted six instances of the word "charm" or its variants (charming, charmed, etc.). Mind you, that's in the first fifteen pages, which seems like a lot of charm(ing) in the early going. I'm gonna go out on a limb and suggest this is significant. The concept of "charm," I think, is an interesting and complex one, and I think everyone should take some time and reflect on its potential as a generator of fiction. That is to say, the intersection of beauty and creepiness should produce a lot of generative tension for storytelling. OK, done?

Anyway, my interest this week is in dialog, especially dialog in mystery-type stories. I myself am now writing a mystery-type novel, and am finding that these things seem to require large quantities of dialog. About 3/4 of the movie Murder on the Orient Express, I seem to recall, is a series of interviews between Hercule Poirot and a parade of famous actors in the dining car. In general, I suppose this is the way evidence gets uncovered in the real world. People get talked to, and they reveal stuff--whether they're witnesses, perpetrators, or some place in between that the detective has yet to determine. But the question--at least for the literary author using the detective story as a vehicle--is how how to make all these different dialogs interesting in their own right? In other words, how do we keep the conversations from simply becoming sources of information--though we need them to be that--and use them to develop character, tease out themes, ramp up conflicts, etc.? How do we make dialog (as some writing guru once said) do more than one thing?

One key, which Henry James does especially well, is that both characters in the dialog want something different. While they may, on one level, be on the same side, still their desires--particularly their hidden desires--come into conflict. And this plays out not only in the way they express themselves verbally, but in other behaviors that become part of the dialog.

Here's an early example. The narrator, a young governess, has recently arrived at her new post, where she's in charge of two exceedingly charming children. She has just received a letter explaining that the boy, Miles, whom she has not yet met, is being expelled from his school. Here, she describes the contents of the letter to the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose.

"They go into no particulars. They simply express their regret that it should be impossible to keep him. That can have only one meaning." Mrs. Grose listened with dumb emotion; she forbore to ask me what this meaning might be; so that, presently, to put the thing with some coherence and with the mere aid of her presence to my own mind, I went on: "That he's an injury to the others."

At this, with one of the quick turns of simple folk, she suddenly flamed up. "Master Miles! HIM an injury?"

There was such a flood of good faith in it that, though I had not yet seen the child, my very fears made me jump to the absurdity of the idea. I found myself, to meet my friend the better, offering it, on the spot, sarcastically. "To his poor little innocent mates!"

"It's too dreadful," cried Mrs. Grose, "to say such cruel things! Why, he's scarce ten years old."

"Yes, yes; it would be incredible."

She was evidently grateful for such a profession. "See him, miss, first. THEN believe it!" I felt forthwith a new impatience to see him; it was the beginning of a curiosity that, for all the next hours, was to deepen almost to pain. Mrs. Grose was aware, I could judge, of what she had produced in me, and she followed it up with assurance. "You might as well believe it of the little lady. Bless her," she added the next moment—"LOOK at her!"

I turned and saw that Flora, whom, ten minutes before, I had established in the schoolroom with a sheet of white paper, a pencil, and a copy of nice "round o's," now presented herself to view at the open door. She expressed in her little way an extraordinary detachment from disagreeable duties, looking to me, however, with a great childish light that seemed to offer it as a mere result of the affection she had conceived for my person, which had rendered necessary that she should follow me. I needed nothing more than this to feel the full force of Mrs. Grose's comparison, and, catching my pupil in my arms, covered her with kisses in which there was a sob of atonement.

Notice the volatility in the dialog (which the narrator attributes to Mrs. Grose's being a species of "simple folk," perhaps telling us something about herself--or about James, I can't be certain--in the process). It does not flow rhythmically back and forth, in a smooth, cooperative, boring Q and A. Even though the two women are apparently in agreement, the dialog moves in bursts, and Mrs. Grose's "flame-up" lights the governess on fire, too. But notice, also, what is not said, what is omitted: "she forbore to ask me what this meaning might be," "I needed nothing more than this..." The governess and Mrs. Grose are both hiding certain feelings or suspicions, not only from each other, but from themselves.

Then, in the very next line:

Nonetheless, the rest of the day I watched for further occasion to approach my colleague, especially as, toward evening, I began to fancy she rather sought to avoid me. I overtook her, I remember, on the staircase; we went down together, and at the bottom I detained her, holding her there with a hand on her arm. "I take what you said to me at noon as a declaration that YOU'VE never known him to be bad."

She threw back her head; she had clearly, by this time, and very honestly, adopted an attitude. "Oh, never known him—I don't pretend THAT!"

I was upset again. "Then you HAVE known him—?"

"Yes indeed, miss, thank God!"

On reflection I accepted this. "You mean that a boy who never is—?"

"Is no boy for ME!"

I held her tighter. "You like them with the spirit to be naughty?" Then, keeping pace with her answer, "So do I!" I eagerly brought out. "But not to the degree to contaminate—"

"To contaminate?"—my big word left her at a loss. I explained it. "To corrupt."

She stared, taking my meaning in; but it produced in her an odd laugh. "Are you afraid he'll corrupt YOU?" She put the question with such a fine bold humor that, with a laugh, a little silly doubtless, to match her own, I gave way for the time to the apprehension of ridicule.

But the next day, as the hour for my drive approached, I cropped up in another place. "What was the lady who was here before?"

Though it's a long way from ending, this dialog stays compelling because of all the ways it gets interrupted. It stops and starts over the course of several days, as the narrator steps back, regroups, and "crops up" again in a way that turns Mrs. Grose into her prey. Also the speakers interrupt each other and themselves in this second section. The whole thing proceeds by fits and starts--it's action. It is also exposition, and it does reveal clues, but it does so obliquely and unpredictably. We see that the narrator is conscious of her own motivations--she likes Mrs. Grose and already senses she'll need her as an ally, but she can't stop herself from coming back after her--going so far as to clamp onto her arm, and tighten her grip as Mrs. Grose tries to get away. For her part, Mrs. Grose seems more desperate; since she can't get the governess to release her physical grasp, she resorts to a kind of verbal jiu-jitsu, which both of them seem aware of, but are unwilling to openly resist.

So, a few take-aways here for improving our dialog, especially dialog functions as exposition:

  • The characters in the dialog have hidden desires that run at cross-purposes to their apparent desires.
  • The dialog may productively be interrupted by action, internal monologue, etc., so that the pursuit and/or avoidance of the dialog (by one character or the other) becomes part of the drama.
  • Physical actions can and should be motivated by the content of the dialog--as opposed to "beats," like smoking a cigarette, taking a sip of coffee, or--god help us--"pausing a beat."
I'm sure there are more.

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