Dialogue: The Footfall of Its Wandering

By Darrell Spencer

Featured Image: The Card Players by Paul Cézanne, 1890-2

You might not have it in mind to go a particular
direction and you might end up going that way.
—tapper Jimmy Slyde

Well, that ain’t what art does. It makes things.
—Stanley Elkin

1.  Full Disclosure

For my entry into a discussion of dialogue I can’t think of a worthier writer to cite than Amy Hempel. The magician and maestro. Hempel’s narrator of Tumble Home opens the novella as one ought: “I begin this letter to you, then, in the western tradition. If I understand it, the western tradition is: Put your cards on the table” (69). Here are my cards: I like fiction that feels off-shot and shaggy, that seems to have fallen from the sky and is banged up thanks to re-entry. I like my fiction jerry-rigged and clumsy. Stanley Elkin uses the word baggy to describe his novels. Perfect.

Screw Poe: “A skillful literary artist has constructed a tale. If wise, he has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents—he then combines such events as may best aid him establishing this preconceived effect.” Oy. Rube Goldberg schooled me; he’s my guy. I want, as I read, to experience the acrobatics, to hear the pop and the hiss and the whiz-bang of the performance. A Goldberg contraption might get you somewhere but you will most likely be too dizzy to appreciate your arrival. You’ve seen those spaceships wobble across the screen in the crackly black-andwhite Flash Gordon flicks. That’s what I’m talking about. Look closely and you see the wires.

There is nothing new in what I’m saying. This is not a scoop.

Talking to an interviewer about a change he made in his handwriting when he went off to college, William Gass describes his efforts as a “rather rigorous kind of philosophical training.” Then he explains the results: “I stuffed another tongue in my mouth. It changed my tastes.” If I torture the strategy of the analogical enough and connect some wayward dots I can relate what I’m trying to say here about dialogue to what Gass had to say about his education. I want to suggest that if I can stuff different tongues into my characters’ mouths, I can write a story that I never intended or anticipated.

2.   The “Paradox of the Planned Surprise”

Gary Saul Morson, in Narrative and Freedom: The Shadows of Time, explores the polyphonic novel (Bakhtin at the core). He identifies a major problem for writers who hope to write fiction that moves this-a-way and that-a-way as it invents itself into being; Morson focuses on process: “The polyphonic author’s problem is not how to get the character plausibly to do what is needed for the plot to work, as it must be for authors with a specific sequence of events in mind, but how to provoke the character to do things that are both surprising and interesting.”

Wasn’t it O’Connor who told us that if we don’t shock ourselves we’re clearly not going to shock our readers? I translate that as an urging to write otherwise, to find a way to escape the limitations of what we plan to say.

Character and dialogue, inextricably linked—right? We understand—don’t we?—that dialogue must be consistent to character, situation and circumstance; it shows off, confirms, and builds characters and relationships. Don’t mix your metaphors, and don’t let your characters talk out of character.

I believe in my heart that if we are not hellbent on crafting a marvel of a story, that if we can let go of the leash, we will be present for the moment(s) when our fiction turns on us. We’ll see the sneer, then witness its teeth flash. My experience tells me that those moments occur more often than not in the dialogue. In Ron Carlson Writes a Story, Carlson makes it clear that he’s not writing one more craft book; he is a writer who is interested in process, and his book walks a reader through, as Carlson says, “a process [he trusts].” Carlson declares that there is something other than craft, “and that is process. The process of writing a story, as opposed to writing a letter, or a research paper, or even a novel, is a process involving a radical, substance-changing discovery.”

For me, unleashing our fiction is part of a process. I want to create a process, the kind that will lead us to Morson’s “paradox of the planned surprise.”

3.  Destinerrance: A Wandering

What I want in my own fiction’s dialogue (kind of, sort of) is a shipwreck. I’m not talking postmodernism here—the self-referential, the meta-fictional, the exposing of the undoing of the doing, the gamesmanship, the deconstruction of the conventions. I’m thinking more of the robber who dresses like the priest and picks your pocket while he thrice blesses you on your journey. What if we reverse the typical way that we look at dialogue? How can I create a process that will invite me into the aleatory that disrupts and undermines my intentions? Where can I find the play in the machine?

Here are my straw-craftsmen and straw-craftswomen, the folk who write books that end their chapters with exercise sections that ask a young writer to write the dialogue that an equilateral triangle would have if it were to sit down to coffee with an isosceles triangle who is having an affair with his cone. Writers, compose a conversation between a squiggle and a circle. How would a Dodge Ram talk to a VW? How would the queen of hearts talk to the two of diamonds at a wedding?

These writers of exercises set up scenarios: Dan is late to dinner again. He didn’t call. He turned his cell off. His comb-over is messed up and fly-away. He walks through the door two hours after the family has polished off the lasagna. Molly is pissed. What does she say? Oh, by the way, he’s a lawyer—top of his class at Yale—and she graduated cum laude from Sarah Lawrence. She wrote a dissertation on e.e. cummings. Dan sets aside his Ferrari briefcase, Italian leather, hand-buffed, and Molly sez—

4.   Swallowing Yourself Whole

Angela Rippon: The essence of Tango is love, betrayal, and resolution.
Contesse Melanie: Is one supposed to dance the [tango] standing up?

So the real me—the I who writes fiction—needs to make a lane change on The Boulevard, and I check my rearview, and there He is behind me, sitting on a bench in front of a skateboard shop, holding forth to the youngsters who are milling about and doing tricks, half cabs and ollies. In my mirror, I’ve spotted Jesus. The King of Kings. He who divvied up the fishes and the loaves of bread. I’ve got me a story to tell, “It’s a Jesus Sighting in my Rearview.” I invent a first-person narrator, late thirties so he at least knows what a hippie is and who Bob Dylan is (was).  He has not-bad hair, but it’s thinning.  Is a prankster on holidays. Once stuffed a turkey with Cheerios and yogurt. He’s a vagabond who spends months on the road installing alarm systems. In fact, he has been out there in America for several weeks in this particular case, and he’s changing lanes on The Boulevard so he can return to the woman he lives with. She is a born-again Jew. Who loves her oxy. He needs to turn left up ahead. But he checks the rearview again. There He is. Big as Life. Mr. Omnipresent. Jesus is lighting up a cigarette. My guy—my character, my narrator—jogs most mornings, but he has a belly on him, and it depresses his fragile ego. He perches on the edge of the bed late at night and talks sadly about the chocolates he can’t resist. He graduated high school and sees himself as a self-educated thinker. He reads Science and Time. He can discourse with you about empty sets in math and Spinoza’s thinking about God.

So how does he talk? How does his dialogue fit to his partner’s? His name is Jacob; her name is Elise. He wants to tell her he spotted Jesus on The Boulevard. How will he explain the miracle to her? What will he say? Speech reveals character. Speech builds character. Speech accords with its context, its situation. Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan divides and sub-divides and divides again and then at least one more time the ways we can learn about characters from the way they talk. They speak; we infer. There is the what and the how of speech. There is what is said and what is not said. There is diction, and there is rhythm. Vocabulary and education. Regional dialect. There is subtext. We can’t forget subtext. Or idioms. Does our character want a pop or a soda?

My weary traveler—late thirty-something, self-educated thinker, slightly over-weight—turns around in the middle of the street—who wouldn’t?—and spends some time with this Jesus. He eventually arrives home, and, naturally enough, he wants to talk about his Jesus Sighting. He saw the anointed One, the dude who delivered the Sermon on the Mount. Elise doesn’t want to hear about it. Her mate smells of the road, and she is upset because of his absences. She’s low on her oxy. He heads for the shower, but:

So I’m back in two minutes, hopping foot to foot, left Levi’s pant leg half off and tripping me up some, and Elise is telling me she doesn’t want to hear the joke the King of the Jews told me. I get down to my underwear, talking to her, saying, “So Jesus says to me, ‘A Rabbi and a Catholic bishop and a duck go into a bar.’” That was all I got out.

“Jacob,” she said, “I’m tired of this.”

I say, “I’m not meaning it was really Jesus. I’m making light of the situation.” I know she means my days on the road not my joke. She knows I know she knows. “This will end,” I say. “It will end.”

“Not soon enough.”

“What we want—it’s out there. We’ll get there. I’m working for it.”

“I don’t see it coming, Jacob.”

“The house. The yard. It’s in sight. The American dream.”

My dialogue is doing its job for Jacob and Elise: ratcheting up the tension, the conflict. I’m near the beginning of the story, so I need a ground situation. I need some trouble: what he/she wants bumping up against what she/he wants. My dialogue is nicely rolling the story forward.

And it is here that the story shows me its teeth, that it threatens me because I’m only doing my job. But, my lazy-ass self argues, the dialogue is consistent with the characters; it is what he would say. It re-presents the way he thinks and talks. It shows us who Elise is. And Jacob, he can clear things up. Make things right.

But what if I think differently? What if I think that I can arbitrarily throw some dialogue into my story, and that dialogue will create my character, that it will not be a reflection of him or her. That dialogue will create a character I did not plan on, one I could not have anticipated. That dialogue will create a chain reaction; it will invoke the other into being so that I will have to adjust all that has preceded the exchange, so that whatever I may have planned is out the window (baby with the bath), so that eventually all the language of the story itself will change utterly. Maybe Jacob will grow a pair.

So I check my notebooks. My practice is to find, as arbitrarily as I can— I literally roll dice for page numbers or I ask Kate, my wife, to give me some random numbers—ten to fifteen bits of dialogue. Here is just one of them from page fifteen of a notebook:

Woman: How do you know he’s tall?
Man: You look.
Woman: When?
Man: If you see him.
Woman: How tall is tall?
Man: He’s full of mood. Beware of that.
Woman: I heard he is.
Man: His nametag says Ace.
Woman: Not seriously.
Man: Seriously. He says things like, if you want the chief, know the gatekeeper.

I toss it in; the alien invades my precious text. Kate tells me her art professor once stood next to her—she was working on a painting—asked if he could borrow her brush, dipped it in her thalo green, and stroked the color across her work. He walked away, saying, “Don’t let it become too precious.”

I jam the found dialogue into the story:

So I’m back in two minutes, hopping foot to foot, left Levi’s pant leg half off and tripping me up some, and Elise is telling me she doesn’t want to hear the joke the King of the Jews told me. I get down to my underwear, talking to her, saying, “So Jesus says to me, ‘A Rabbi and a Catholic bishop and a duck go into a bar.’” That was all I got out.

Woman: How do you know he’s tall?
Man: You look.
Woman: When?
Man: If you see him.
Woman: How tall is tall?
Man: He’s full of mood. Beware of that.
Woman: I heard he is.
Man: His nametag says Ace.
Woman: Not seriously.
Man: Seriously. He says things like, if you want the chief, know the gatekeeper.

And now comes the joy. Can I, through my process, find my way into the paradox of the planned surprise? So I make some adjustments (toss my salad, riff, try a few licks, hopscotch, tango and foxtrot), and I throw them in, and then I have a completely different relationship between these characters; they are not who they were, and my story will never be the same. Something like:

So I’m back in two minutes, hopping foot to foot, left Levi’s pant leg half off and tripping me up some, and Elise is telling me she doesn’t want to hear the joke the King of the Jews told me. I get down to my underwear, talking to her, saying, “So Jesus says to me, ‘A Rabbi and a Catholic bishop and a duck go into a bar.’” That was all I got out.

Elise says, “I’m thinking six three. Was he tall?”

I admit I didn’t look. I say, “How tall is tall?”

“When?”

I say, “If you see Him.”

“Six three is tall.”

I say, “He’s full of mood. Beware of that.”

Elise says, “I heard he is.”

“His nametag says Ace,” I say.

“Not seriously.”

I say, “Seriously, and he says things like, if you want the chief, know the gatekeeper.”

That’s another ontology. Jacob is twenty-three now, and he plays the saxophone. Elise was educated at Sarah Lawrence. His waist is still thirty. Just this morning Elise had her hair clipped and it now has within it the vibrant notes of brambleberry and currant; it is full of merriment. Her name is now Minnie. But I don’t try only the one notebook piece of dialogue. Replace. Remove. Replace. Remove. Replace. Remove. Imagine plugging in ten or fifteen different segments of dialogue. Imagine being patient. Do it. And listen. Miles Davis taught us that; it’s the first word of his autobiography: Listen. You do, and you’ll hear “My Funny Valentine” in the way you and the world could not have imagined its ever being played; you’ll write the story you certainly didn’t intend to write and never would have written had you not drawn yourself into the paradox of the planned surprise.


Darrell Spencer has published five books of fiction: four short story collections and one novel. Caution: Men in Trees won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and Bring Your Legs with You won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize. He is currently working on a novel titled The Deflowering of Christian Frei.

Originally appeared in NOR 17

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s