Literary Slide Rules

Slide_rule_scales_backIn the prior segment, we saw that subtext arose [by necessity] whenever a speaker moved from a cooperative to a confrontational conversation frame. Today we will look at other routes conversations might take and then narrow in on the hypothetical subtext values which would result.

In sweeping terms, there are three conversational “routes”:

1. Cooperative–>Confrontational
2.  Cooperative–>Cooperative
3. Confrontational–>Confrontational

At first glance, it might seem that a fourth category has been left out:

4. Confrontational–>Cooperative

The case for 4 being different from 1 is easy to make. Meaning falls into relief when you substitute the words “I am” and “you are”. For example:

1. I am cooperative and you are confrontational.

is not identical in meaning to when,

4. I am confrontational and you are cooperative.

The meanings of sentences 2 and 4 may be boldly differentiated, but their subtextual values are not. In other words, it makes no difference to the subtextual sum of a scene which speaker is being cooperative and which is being confrontational.

Since we looked at route 1 in the previous segment, today we will examine routes 2 and 3. We will begin with 2, the scene in which I am cooperative and you are also cooperative.

The first thing to note about this route is that there is no way to write it in which it is not EXPOSITORY. Neither you, nor any other writer [living or dead] has the ability to keep a cooperative on cooperative scene from filling with exposition. Remember how they were defined in the previous segment:

The primary purpose in cooperative conversation is to relay information.

The example contexts given: small talk, on the job training, and doctor’s visits, indict themselves as exposition with little effort—just remember back to the last time you participated in one of these conversations. I’m sure it went down something like this:

What brings you in today?

I’ve had a fever for the last two days.

Any other symptoms?

Sore throat, runny nose, terrible cough.

It doesn’t take a verbal genius to realize that scene is completely boring, and it’s all exposition. When people engage in mutually cooperative conversation in real life, the goal is for information to flow between both parties. The conversation itself is only interesting to those who participate in it.

My initial advice is to STRIKE all cooperative conversations from your script. [This would NOT be bad advice.] In fact, the first rule of our shared dialogue fight club should be:

You do not write scenes of cooperative conversation.

This should also be the second and third rule. However, for any enterprising screenwriters out there who really wants to tackle a difficult task, you could take one of these scenes which is guaranteed to be filled with cooperative exposition and also force it to ring with subtext. But, you have to be very good at what you do. I think these scenes of subtext laced exposition [when they work] come from a single source.

One of the characters has a secret the other character ALREADY knows.

Additionally, I think it a function of this conversation’s grammar that it can only be subtext if the audience knows the secret and if the audience knows that “the other character” knows the secret as well. It is clear from the need to bring in the audience, that this is the most “contrived form” of subtext there is. Inevitably, the scene is going to come across as one character toying with the other. The suspense will come from the audience’s desire to know if this is the scene in which the secret gets spilled.

I’d almost go as far as saying you should only use this approach if you’re writing a psychopathically vicious character. If Col. Landa is your antagonist, you will definitely want to write a scene from this route.

Fortunately, I don’t have to go that far because this route is not solely paved for the villains. You could also use it anytime you have a character who does not want to tell another character a secret because they don’t want the secret to cause emotional damage.

Imagine a scene in which you are the doctor, your father comes in for a routine checkup, and when the tests come back you realize he’s got an advanced terminal illness. The next time you meet your father, you will likely engage in a bunch of painful [for the audience] cooperative conversation which forestalls your need to deliver the bad news. In your capacity as doctor you have to deliver the bad news. In your capacity as son, you don’t want to. The audience knows both of these things, and from this knowledge, subtext blooms.

So, the next time you realize you’ve written a passage of “small talk” in your latest script, delete it. If you don’t delete it, then be sure it can answer yes to one of the following questions:

1. Is my psychopathic villain toying with someone?
2. Is one of my characters procrastinating in delivering bad news?

If you can answer yes to either of these questions, then the dialogue has the possibility of being as much about the subtext as it is about the exposition.

Since we are in the business of writing about human drama, route 3, or:

3. Confrontational–>Confrontational

is the road by which you will make your story great… or mediocre. The heights a story reaches is ultimately determined by this brand of dialogue because these are the conversations in which both participants fight to be the winner. There is no agreement between the parties to be honest. [This does not mean either, or both, will lie. Very often the truth is more disconcerting than any lie could hope to be.] The participants will verbally battle each other until one party can declare victory. This is a dialogue Vince Lombardi could love. In a confrontational on confrontational scene, winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.

It doesn’t take much induction to realize that the better a script is the more intense these confrontational scenes will read. [You shouldn’t think intensity is correlated with violence or emotional abuse either, it is not]. I believe these scenes litigate the impressiveness of your script because they are the summation of all the character work, plot point choosing, and theme sanding you did throughout your script’s creation. You will have created characters who will fight to the verbal death. The audience will thrill in the drama because a good conversation is always a contest. Even in Hollywood where the “good guy always wins”, the audience will forget the truth in that marketing maxim and become absorbed in the spectacle of the dialogue you write. IF you write it.

[My last attempt at screenwriting theory provides information on how you get your confrontation on confrontation scenes to be the powerhouses they should be to meet the criteria described in the preceding two paragraphs. I won’t summarize all those helpful tips here.]

For sure, the overwhelming question left is: How do you write it?

I suppose I am going to summarize at least one of the tips from my previous effort because I see no other way of answering that overwhelming question. Basically [and tell me you didn’t already know], you start with your theme. I see this confrontation on confrontation route unfolding as distinct arguments supporting a thesis and an antithesis. One of the characters gives premises as dialogue which endorse a positive characteristic about our collective humanity. The other character gives premises as dialogue which endorse a negative characteristic about our collective humanity. A debate ensues.

Notice that we will not be appropriating Hegel by claiming that the object of the dual confrontation route is synthesis. It is definitely NOT. Your dialogue in these crucial scenes will always have a winner. The better written the scene is, the more clear that winner will be. More often than not, the winner will not be the protagonist. This goes back to the spectrum of ways, and the idea that your protagonist’s “plot graph” will oscillate between negative and positive coordinates that only end in a positive displacement from the origin altitude.

Great scenes result from intense thematic “arguments”.

In terms that are probably too precise to be pragmatically useful, I see this central confrontation on confrontation route appearing three times in a feature length script. During the protagonist’s first attempt to distill the truth in the theme of her story, she will stumble and fail. The antagonist will soundly defeat her. The second attempt will go much better because she will have begun to learn how to wield her SUMA. Finally, in the third attempt to argue for her story’s theme, the protagonist will have all the necessary tools and beliefs to defeat the arguments of the antagonist, and she will win. Because it is Hollywood, you will try and make us sweat it, but there can be no synthesis. The protagonist is sole victor. The truth in her theme is the instrument of her victory.

You shouldn’t take that injunction to put three scenes of dual confrontation based dialogue into a script as anything more than a thought experiment. You don’t, literally, have to have three of them. Depending on how fast your script moves, you could get by with a minimum of two and a maximum of… I don’t know.

I imagine the upper bound of this type of dialogue would be determined by when it would wear the reader’s patience… and that isn’t something for which a literary slide rule has yet been invented. I intuit [with no argument to support it] that the average “good” reader wouldn’t be up for more than five of these types of scenes. After that point, I believe they would become exhausted by the read. If you feel like you need more than five, most probably, you should switch over to writing Plato’s type of dialogue.

***The next segment in this article will discuss how hierarchies get implied into conversations, and how this leads directly to conversational winners and losers.

Part One of this article is available here.


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