Ping-Pong Dialogue

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Coward.
I know.
Betrayer.
Yes.
Opportunist.
I can see why you would think that.
Slave.
Go on.
Faithless lecherous child.
Okay.
Liar.
What can I say.
Liar.
But.
Liar.
But please.
Destroyer liar sadist fake.
Please.
Please what.
Save me.
Who else do you say that to.
No one.
No one he says.
Have courage.
You fool.
Oh my love.
Stop.

—Anne Carson, The Beauty of the Husband

That was husband and wife ploughing through their domestic argument.

If any dialogue is said to speed up the plot, then “ping-pong” dialogue is a race-car down the page, or a sledge, or a shoot, or a slippery-slope—wheeeeee!—that sends the reader whizzing along.

The absence of dialogue tags (he said, she said) and dialogue beats (He stood up. She pointed a finger at him.) is pleasant. It’s a light touch. It’s the vastness of air above the ping-pong table, that contributes to the game as much as the paddles and the ball.

(Calling it table tennis doesn’t quite capture the gist of repartee.)

But the tags are not needed in a back-and-forth, and the beats appear naturally even when there are none. Once the protagonists of a story are set, their characters and mannerisms vividly portrayed, it’s easy to imagine who’s doing what. When I first read Carson’s exchange, I saw the husband and the wife making all sorts of gestures. Upon rereading, the gestures changed—such is the versatility of invisible beats.

I offer three further quotes from very different sources. They all use the same specific “trick” to pull off an effective ping-pong. Can you spot what it is?

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Real-World References in Fiction

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Fiction mustn’t begrudge the setting.

Gripping plot and solid character-building are necessary, but interest is still often derived from the specific where, be it your street, Seattle, Middle Earth, or Mars.

However, occasionally the narrative is only loosely tethered to a place, if at all. Then the details come from the characters and their internal worlds, which have to be richly furnished with knowledge, sensibilities, traumas, psychoses, which in turn have to be labelled, easily recalled, and presented in a way that resonates with the reader.

Resonance comes through recognition, and is achieved by recalling common facts—scientific, geographic, historic, cultural, mythological, literary. We’ve all probably heard of Plato, World War II, and the Internet (my readers at least).

You see: lists, lists, and more lists of building blocks. They get boring. Quickly. Also, there are many choices to make, what to include, where. Different references to the real world ground the world of the story differently, and the audience self-selects for those who appreciate that particular grounding.

For example, Anne Carson’s verse-novel The Beauty of the Husband references Duchamp on the first page, to set the mood for a tale of a broken marriage.

So Duchamp
of The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors

which broke in eight pieces in transit from the Brooklyn Museum

to Connecticut (1912)

Even if you were unaware of Duchamp’s mixed-media installation, the mention of artist, work, place, and time, flicks colour onto the background of Carson’s literary painting, so to speak. You know what to expect.

Such references—which are neither part of a traditional, physical setting, nor outright quotes of external sources (though there are some)—are difficult to integrate so the reader doesn’t perceive them as mini info-dumps. It’s a skill, and the first step to mastering it is learning from well-wrought examples.

Here is what I learned from Carson.

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The Beauty of the Husband: Metaphors

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Wounds bring both pain and a promise of change.

A wound gives off its own light
surgeons say.
If all the lamps in the house were turned out
you could dress this wound
by what shines from it.

—Anne Carson, The Beauty of the Husband

Mesmerised by Carson’s Autobiography of Red and Red Doc>, I embarked on a more ambitious journey through her world of verse-novels. This blurb warned of complexity:

The Beauty Of The Husband is an essay on Keats’s idea that beauty is truth, and is also the story of a marriage. It is told in 29 tangos. A tango (like a marriage) is something you have to dance to the end.

If tackling page one was an act of faith in myself, then moving from page one to page two was an act of faith in the author and in her ability to write an “enjoyable” book on marriage, starting with the words A wound. Petty grievances and family drama make for hard reading.

But reality TV this is not. In fact, Carson’s book is the smoothest ninety-minute read.

Of the 145 pages most are nearly blank—the usual sparsity of verse counterbalances the density of its internal images—so it’s easy to breeze through visually.

The consequences of the content are another matter (which is personal).

The writing lessons to be drawn, yet another (which I’ll share).

But first: what of tangos, what of Keats?

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Leafing Through Shade and Shadow

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I love the shade and the shadow, and would be alone with my thoughts when I may.

—Dracula in Bram Stoker’s eponymous novel.

Shade and shadow. Different or same? Similar? How?

Fowler’s admits they have an almost identical meaning which branches out into a considerable diversity of idiom. Well put, if hardly illuminating. But his mnemonic “clue” to their difference does enlighten.

shade, shadow, nn. The details of this diversity are too many to be catalogued here, but it is a sort of clue to remember that shadow is a piece of shade, related to it as, e.g., pool to water.

So shade fills a shadow to the brim and no farther, and while shadow belongs to a concrete object, shade belongs to the world.

The pool-water analogy is not as trifling as it seems. It’s almost poetic.

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The Nectars of Paradise

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How from that sapphire fount the crispèd brooks,
Rolling on orient pearl and sands of gold,
With mazy error under pendant shades
Ran nectar, visiting each plant, and fed
Flowers worthy of Paradise …

—John Milton, Paradise Lost (iv. 237–241).

So muses Satan on the nectar flowing through Eden. But how much thought does he give to the adjectives derived therefrom: is that flow nectarean or nectareal, or is it paradisean, or perhaps paradisiacal?

In 1968, Fowler’s opines:

nectar has kept the word-makers busy in search of its adjective; nectareal, nectarean, nectared, nectareous, nectarian, nectariferous, nectarine, nectareous, and nectarous, have all been given a chance. Milton, with nectared, nectarine, and nectarous, keeps clear of the four-syllabled forms in which the accent is drawn away from the significant part; and we might do worse than let him decide for us.

So which one won out?

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Euphemism and Euphuism

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Konstantin Somov, Lady and Harlequin (1921)

 

“My husband has gone bear hunting,” she says.

***

She knows some very pleasant secrets.
After the secrets, we drink aquavit and I recite a poem …

—Paul Willems, Flight of the Archbishop (translated by Edward Gauvin)

Even within such meagre context, the nature of Countess Kausala’s secrets is evident, despite the euphemism. Fiction is a purveyor supreme of such delicate phrasings precisely because they hide the explicit on the page, so that they may reveal a particular (peculiar?) explicitness at the pleasure of the reader’s imagination. In an erotic context, they’re the equivalent of a veil that gets lifted not by the hand but by the mind, and they’re often the difference between seedy and sublime.

In my previous post, I discussed elegant variation—the laboured avoidance of repetition according to Fowler’s—which itself is a useful euphemism employed playfully, but with the more usual, real-world negative connotation.

Euphemising has been around for longer than Photoshop, so it’s also had longer to earn its infamy.

Indeed, as Fowler’s shows us in this entry from 1968, History has clapped along to a rich linguistic variety show: biological states are known to parade powdered, masked, bedecked in feathers, while societal scourges dress up as sophisticated harlequins.

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Elegant Variation

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Fyodor Vasilyev, Poplars Lit by the Sun

By the house grows a poplar. Each spring its branches shoot for the sky, eager to extend the tree’s rocket-shape.

Try writing a third sentence about the poplar.

Did your sentence use poplar or tree? Did you feel clumsy having to repeat a prominent word that was already used? Or perhaps you went for an unambiguous application of the pronoun (Its roots dig further down into the gravely earth …)? What would you do for a fourth or fifth sentence?

If you’re wondering why word-variation matters, consider the example without it:

By the house grows a tree. Each spring the tree’s branches shoot for the sky, eager to extend the tree’s bullet-shape.

Aside from losing the specificity, we’ve lost a solid, well-formed image to the inane hammering of a word.

You usually notice that you’ve referred to something in the same way across multiple consecutive sentences during a rereading of a draft. Then comes the question of substitutes. My example above is fairly prototypical for common nouns: there is at least one other word which can serve you immediately (poplar) and one pronoun you can seize on (it). If those are not enough, then the problem lies with uniform (and therefore uninteresting) sentence structure, and it’s a matter of reworking from the elements up.

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Does It Come off?

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Untidy personal appearance or professionally frayed jeans?

Stench or refined perfume made with whale faecal matter?

Kitsch or baroque extravaganza?

Obsolete or avant-garde?

One question underlies them all:

Does it come off?

If it does, critics manufacture reasons for praise. If it does not, the object under scrutiny is shaded with degrees of doom.

This applies to writing, too. In fact, it’s the reason why self-editing is so difficult: of course this essay-poem-post-book comes off beautifully—I conceived it! No one writing for public consumption believes they’re creating a priori substandard or flawed works.

This is also true on a micro level, when it comes to defining what a (good) sentence is. Must it have a subject and a predicate? Or must it just be a unit of coherent thought?

Fowler’s Dictionary offers ten definitions to illustrate the range of approaches. Number 1 takes the ‘popular approach’.

sentence. What is a sentence?

1. A word or set of words followed by a pause and revealing an intelligible purpose.

It almost sounds like the beginning of a modified Turing test. Note how context sneaks in: purposes are largely intelligible when set off against a particular background.

Number 8 takes the ‘grammarian approach’.

sentence. What is a sentence?

8. A number of words making a complete grammatical structure.

Here the onus is shifted to those willing to define such structures and then grapple with potential exceptions.

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It Is True That Words Are Cheap

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Synonyms are like spices: used in moderation, they enhance the taste; used without moderation, they obscure every flavour. Linguistic gustation differentiates between them under the titles synonymia and tautology. Though, of course, pleasurable variety for one reader is overabundance for another.

Let’s have a saucy example.

“She’s an Encyclopaedia, that woman.”

“Of all the vices, ancient and modern, and very interesting to riffle through.” He started stoking up the fire. “There’s everything in that woman, of the ghoul, the lamia, the Greek courtesan, the Barbarian queen, the low prostitute, the great lady of Rome, with something very partial, very gripping, very corruption of the fin-de-siècle, very Baudlerian, if I might put it like that: a slightly funereal seasoning of lust and quasi-Christian resignation; she’s as subject, a case-study. …”

“For the Salpêtrière, eh—let’s say the word. Another neurotic.”

—Jean Lorrain in The Unknown Woman (translation by Brian Stableford)

How’s that on the digestion?

Lorrain specialises in psychological studies of moral decadence—and there is a separate post on his prose—but for now it suffices to note that to some people the quote may appear overdone. And that’s despite me having spared you the accompanying references to Pasiphae and the bull, Messalina’s promiscuity, and Cleopatra in general.

(Writing tip: Observe that Lorrain prepares the reader for the word-train by having his characters be aware of the upcoming speech figure: they call the woman an encyclopaedia. Clever. It helps believability.)

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Every Chance of Going Wrong

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False scent: When the author claims this is lavender, and some readers claim it’s only a picture of lavender.

 

For Christmas I received from my grandfather-in-law a special present: his lovingly kept second edition of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (revised by Sir Ernest Gowers). Even though I’d heard of Fowler’s, seen it referenced, and perused extracts from its modern entries, I’d never actually held it my hands—until now!

Despite this copy’s notable sixty years of age, its pages are in impeccable condition. Fowler’s advice, his examples, and inherent relevance show some wear, but nothing that the author’s sense of humour doesn’t amply recompense. I speak of this 1968 edition. The few more flavourful entries that I was able to search for in a 1996 edition were either non-existent or effectively bowdlerised. What’s left nowadays is the bland and spartan, but most pragmatic, dictionary-speak.

I understand why—political correctness and modernisation march rightly on—though I think the earlier editions can still be enjoyed, if not as go-to guides, then as historical documents. Quirky and witty ones at that. Although, I warn you: quirk and wit have this charismatic presence that often wins out over straight-laced teachings.

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