Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Who needs dialog?

I saw a couple things recently that got me thinking about dialog in story-telling. One was Eight Below, a Disney feel-good piece about a guy who goes to extraordinary lengths to save his sled dogs who he was forced to abandon in the Antarctic. The other was a piece from the episode "Battleground" of the "Nightmares and Dreamscapes" productions of Stephen King stories, in which a hit man does battle with a box of toy soldiers that come to life in his apartment.

I said, "dialog in story-telling," but I should have said lack of dialog in story-telling. Normally, dialog is what distinguishes a story, and separates the men from the boys in writing. Authentic-sounding dialog is really hard, and really rewarding when its done well, so it's surprising to find works that forego it entirely. In both works, there are looooong stretches of the story that are told completely without words being spoken. (I didn't see the entire episode, but I think the "Battleground" story had zero dialog.) Eight Below had to tell the story of the dogs in the Antarctic, and (surprising for a Disney movie) the dogs can't talk. So, in both pieces the story has to be told (and told dramatically) with no words. (Warning: spoilers follow.)

This is not exactly new . . . Joss Whedon broke ground with his episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", "Hush," in which no spoken dialog occurred. But what struck me with these pieces is how much more powerful the stories were for the lack of dialog. Rather than just being a literary stunt (like Gadsby, Ernest Vincent Wright's novel written entirely without the letter "e") these stories felt better without dialog. In fact, the more I thought about it, I couldn't think of any dialog that could be included that would not seem inane and take away from the dramatic impact of the story. The dogs couldn't say anything more interesting than "watch out for that leopard seal!" or "gee, I'm hungry" . . . and those things are actually I lot more interesting to watch than to hear spoken. In fact, the show-don't-tell principle works extraordinarily well here, because the lack of dialog forces us closer to the experience of what's actually happening. Somehow a dog licking the face of his fallen companion is more compelling than any grave-side speech (sorry, Hamlet). (Kudos also to Disney for actually daring to have some of the dogs die. I got a lot more interested in the story once I saw there were real stakes in the story-telling.)

"Battleground" was also more dramatic for the lack of dialog. Similarly, it's the sort of thing that works well in action, but sounds inane when narrated or commented upon ("gee, where did those soldiers go?" or "Holy crap, they've got a cannon!") I think the lack of dialog aided in the suspension of disbelief necessary for the premise, too . . . the more talking that goes on, the more the rational mind is engaged, interfering with the immediacy of the fantastic events taking place.

I'm not sure how I can use this perspective on non-dialog . . . it just feels important to know that it's available. Wordless transmission, indeed.


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