Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Importance of Suspense -- Part 11

I'd like to add a few words to "Vergil's" posts on The Importance of Suspense, primarily those concerning the uses of dialogue. I've been concerned with plays all of my life -- writing them, directing them, acting in them -- so I'm always focused on dialogue, and may have something to contribute here.

First, though, I should say that "Vergil's" observations, if taken together, might well be the beginnings of a textbook on Mystery Writing. I don't know if such a thing exists, but these comments are so cogent and so clearly-stated that I think they would indeed help mystery writers of all stripes -- those who want to review their technique as well as beginners.

Another comment (I'm putting off my comments on dialogue, you'll notice, thereby keeping you in suspense) concerns the quotation in the section beginning Part 6, "If a gun is introduced to the audience in the first act, it had better be used in the third." I could be wrong, but I think the person who expressed that thought was Chekhov. Now, I bow to no man in my admiration of Chekhov (he is, in fact, the finest of all dramatists, in my opinion), but it's not unreasonable to point out that he made this statement in the late 19th (or possibly early 20th) century, when melodrama was a more widely accepted form than it is today. I wonder if a modern-day Chekhov would suggest that introducing a gun in the first act might be useful as a way of tantalizing the audience. He might NOT wish to satisfy the audience's expectation that the gun will be fired in Act Three. I suppose I should mention in this context that I've recently completed a play that will be performed next year that consciously (and portentously) does introduce a gun early in the play but, later, uses references to the gun as a joke. After the performances of my play, I'll have a better idea if the technique I'm trying works as satisfactorily as I hope it will.

Now, at last, to dialogue: "Vergil's" advice is excellent, I think, so my observations are intended to support, not contradict, his. A truism about dialogue used in the theatre is that the character may be speaking the truth, may be withholding part of the truth, or may be lying. (Of course, this can become more complicated: if the character is withholding the truth, WHY is he doing so? What does it tell us about him? What does it say about the person he's addressing? How does it affect our understanding of the situation in which he finds himself? Has an outside force [or forces] been responsible in persuading him to shade the truth? Are the outside forces threatening or benevolent? Does the character even know that he possesses only a part of the truth? Etc., etc.) It is always true in the theatre that what a character DOES is more indicative than what the character SAYS. Similarly, in fiction, a character may say one thing, but -- if the author hasn't violated the reader's trust -- the author can later demonstrate that the character was not telling the truth, for his behavior has contradicted his statement. In fact, if a writer is skillful enough, the reader will know (or strongly suspect) that the character is lying or withholding the truth even before the narrative has made that clear. If the writer is supremely skillful, it may not even be necessary for him or her to demonstrate the character's dishonesty, for the way in which the story or novel has been arranged may make the point without the author having to point it out. Indeed, that's probably the best method.

These are only a few random responses to THE IMPORTANCE OF SUSPENSE. Many others could be made, but I'll pick this response up another time.

No comments: