Monday, June 11, 2012

Two Things

One of the best pieces of writing advice I've ever read is to never say one thing, always say two. In the dialogue chapter from Sol Stein's How to Grow a Novel, he says that well-written dialogue isn't natural (although perhaps the best-written dialogue may seem that way). Dialogue from a novel must reveal something about the character, or the motivation, or the relationship between the characters. It can't ever just mean what it says.

Although the advice makes sense to me, I didn't really believe how important it was to say have that extra layer of meaning until I started reading other novels with that in mind. When I started to pay attention to parts of books I found boring, it turned out that they dragged most when they meant what they said, and only what they said. Until I took that to heart, I thought I wrote good dialogue, that I had a good ear for natural speech. But years of reading court transcripts, particularly my own, show that natural speech is the farthest thing you would want to read in a novel. There is a morbid fascination with seeing how many times per sentence one person can say "okay" (I average 2.3 per sentence), that train-wreck impulse doesn't propel people to purchase books, I imagine.

I think that the say-two-things rule makes writing better across all entertainment mediums, not just novels. The emails, blog posts, and tweets I'm most proud of are the ones I can cram as many different subtexts into as the words can hold. I suppose that why I enjoy dirty jokes so much--manage a double entendre, and that's already two things right there. See? You thought I was warped from spending countless formative hours watching Beavis and Butthead, but in fact I'm being literary, pursuing density of thought and speech.

 But sometimes density doesn't always serve. I wanted to blog about my fish tank, just because I spent a bunch of time scrubbing it out so it was on my mind.  And I'm sure if I thought about it long enough, I could come up with some literary motif or moral lesson about cleaning the tank, perhaps something about reflections or about the importance of balancing fish and plants to maintain the environment.

But it all seemed pretty contrived, and I was afraid that the reflection theme might make people notice that my tank reflects a living room as untidy as the algae-coated tank. And really, the whole point of the fish tank is because it's a mental oasis, a quiet place to zone out, follow the fish, watch the soft stream from the bubblers. To relax.

So because I've been feeling relaxed and happy, and because I want to share something I enjoy, I only have one real thing to say today, and that is:

Look at my fish!
36-gallon tank, natural driftwood, 8 plants, 2 angels, 7 glowlight tetras, 3 emerald corydoras,
and at least 2, possibly 3 otocinclus catfish (they're hard to spot)

1 comment:

  1. I love watching pilots of tv shows with an eye towards the dialogue. They've got to do a ton:

    1) introduce all the characters and conflicts
    2) set up and then resolve an arc for a 45 minute show
    3) set up and foreshadow an arc for an entire series
    4) set up and foreshadow an arc for a 7 year run

    In order to do all of that, every single line of dialogue is doing two or three or four things: a character fights with his wife, and in two lines we learn that
    * he's married
    * he's corrupt at work
    * he's honest at home
    * his wife knows that he's corrupt at work
    * he puts his kids before anything else
    * etc.

    That's a heck of a brief on two characters, and yet it can be done in two lines.

    The dataset you get is preselected to be awesome: obviously this pilot was good enough to be made into a show!

    ...and, further, because the process of getting a show signed takes so long, the writer has usually been polishing his gem for years (as opposed to a typical episode, which is "broken" in the writer's room about 7 days before filming starts, I think).

    I love The Shield, and the pilot was a good example of this. Others work as well.