Friday, November 17, 2006

Oscar, Felix, and You

My mother was a New Yorker and a lover of Broadway. When I was kid, I was exposed to scores of tons of musicals. I grew up loving the music and appreciating the Great White Way. Unfortunately, a twelve year old kid has little chance of getting to New York to check out the latest Toni winners. So? So I did what I could to recreate the experience: I checked plays out of the library. I discovered that most of the major plays were printed in yearly compilations.

In this way I discovered Man of La Mancha, Hello Dolly, Two Gentlemen From Verona, Golden Boy, etc. I also discovered Neil Simon. I probably read just about every one of his plays available in print. I loved Doc's way with words, the texture of his dialogue, the patter.

Through this period of my development I was getting an education in something without being aware of it: dialogue.

In my Thursday night writer's group we talked about reading and the importance of absorbing different literary voices. We emphasized the importance of not just reading, but analyzing, breaking apart the prose, and studying the underlying structure. One of the women from the group wrote me an email today and asked what author or authors I would recommend. Having thought long and hard about this, I have to start here, at my beginning awareness of how to communicate--through dialogue. Through plays.

So I recommend to her and to anyone else who is interested that a wonderful and fun place to begin would be the plays of Neil Simon. They aren't profound. They don't describe the soulful nature of man. They aren't the works of Tennesse Williams or Edward Albee. However, for studying natural flow of dialogue and how that dialogue can be used to establish character with economy and move along the plot, there is no one better. In particularly, I recommend: "The Odd Couple", almost all of Simon is wonderful.

Resist the temptation to go rent this video. You can't study it by watching it. You need to read the words, hear them in your own voice. Ask yourself what is happening in each scene. Explore interactions and try and see if Simon is truly utilizing a sentence or two, or if he is merely filling space. Don't bother, he never merely uses space.

Look at the arc of the story. Simon is a genius at setting up the audience. He gives you two opposites and you rub your hands together waiting for them to get on one's another's nerve as they share living space. You know this is going to end badly for them; you want it to end badly. That may sound tragic, but tragedy is the best comedy. And as the inevitable occurs, you feel satisfied and at one surprised by the richness of the comedic conflict.

So Lindy...that's my answer to you. If you want to start reading work for analyzing writing techniques, read Neil Simon. It's fun and it's a terrific primer for one type of dialogue.
(pictured: Art Carney and Walter Matthau from the original Broadway production of "The Odd Couple")


Pythia3 said...

Thanks Stewart! I'll let you know how it goes. And thanks for all of your help. Lindy

Jon said...

And don't forget Shakespeare. Gonna know dialog, gotta read Shakespeare.

Stewart Sternberg said...

NO. Dear god NO.

Do not read Shakespeare to work on contemporary dialogue pacing and texture. I love Shakespeare. Hell I consider myself something of a Shakespearean scholar. I would have enjoyed teaching him at the college level.

However, Shakespeare's iambic pentameter won't work for most people who want to develop their dialogue.

SQT said...

I used to watch "Barefoot in the Park" all the time as a kid. They used to broadcast the play that starred Bess Armstrong and Richard Thomas.

I guess the story is a precursor to the TV show "Dharma and Greg."

But I loved it. I have seen "Brighton Beach Memoirs" several times on stage too. Neil Simon does have a gift for understanding how people talk to eachother. That's probably what I agonize most over when I write something. I want it to be interesting but believable. That's not always easy to accomplish.

One of my favorite authors is John Sandford. He writes the Prey series of detective novels. I love the way he has his characters interact and the dialogue never seems forced to me. I can visualize the characters speaking to eachother. That's what I'd like to strive for.

Stewart Sternberg said...

You know SQT, you just reminded me of another author whose dialogue is magick. Robert Parker. His Spenser series is always entertaining and the running patter is right on target. Parker never misses a beat.

Susan Miller said...

Thanks for the recommendations, ya'll!

Jon said...

Ha! It is not so, Sternberg! Read you now those heady words, and with but a modicum of study will you find scarcely an Iamb...much less a meter in fifths!
No, these words that flowed from that bard's pen coursed a course as certain as the blood in his veins. His sentence structure's a marvel; from brevity to length and from clear and pin point accuracy to allusion shrouded obscurity.
Gotta read Shakespeare.

Ormondroyd's Encyclopedia Esoterica said...

And has Elmore Leonard lived in vain? I heard he sits around drinking coffee in bars and on the edges of crowds, an invisible ex-barfly, and gets some of his best dialogue started that that way:
"Fuck you, Chickenfat."
At least one New Yorker cartoonist, Edward Koren, wanders around town with a small notepad, writes down things he overhears while waiting in line, then draws fuzzy monsters to go with them. My favorite of his is a little kid fallen off a tricycle, and a fatuous adult asks, "Do you want to talk about it?"