Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Professor Schimpf, I presume

A funny thing's happened this semester. I've gone from "Rich" to my students to 'Professor Schimpf', 'Mr. Schimpf', or even, on two occasions, 'sir'. It's fairly emphatic. I teach at a laid back, very California college. Even the dean is 'Michael'. I'll ask the students to call me Rich. Then the next email comes back with Professor Schimpf. It's true I've gained a few pounds. It's been a tough year, and I'm sure I wear the effects of that to some degree. Or perhaps, they simply note on a semi-conscious level that I've crested the hill and have begun my descent into old age. It's unnerving. There's a bout of soul-searching with each mention. And the mentions seem to come with roughly the pacing of a repeated joke in a Woody Allen movie.

When I first started teaching, the rare mention of 'Professor Schimpf' meant something else. There was a bit of pride, of course. This was mixed with a different kind of soul-searching. I'd made a firm decision to leave academia years before, and found myself teaching only through a fairly circuitous twist of fate. I'd tell the student to call me Rich, but what I meant was, "No, I'm a writer. This is just a gig."

The whole thing has me thinking about dialogue, and just how flimsy and fickle words on a page can be. So much dialogue is written without a firm handle on the assumptions. You call a professor Professor because that's what he is. But the meat of the drama in any life is all about the meaning beyond that. It's all in the set up. Professor Schimpf, like any other phrase, means most of what it means by virtue of the narrative it's in. It marks a line crossed over. It brings up my backstory. It engenders conflict and reveals development. We often write as if the words on the page mean what the dictionary says. But we never hear them that way in daily life.

You find yourself standing in line at the grocery store. The couple in front of you is arguing about whether to buy a jumbo pack of crackers. You'll forget the crackers. You'll know instinctively who holds the power, what strategies they use, what they likely do for a living, what their families are like. We can do that. We can divine almost endless information just eavesdropping on a conversation about a box of crackers.

Good dialogue is when the writer achieves an approximation of that endless information. Good dialogue pours more meaning into one word than bad dialogue does in pages. How does that happen?

Set up. Conflict. Audience question. There's a three-act structure in most scenes. You begin with a strong, visual set up. You've got compelling characters, and you've found an interesting opposition for them. That drives a conflict. That conflict opens up more for the audience to engage and explore. It opens up something new for the audience to bet on.

That work is exacting. That work is the architecture. Dialogue is the choice of paint color, or what kind of curtains you're going to hang. It matters, of course. But it matters in a very different way. And it matters not at all if you've not constructed the set up well.

This will come as no surprise to most of you out there, but dialogue follows action for a reason. It's nothing without the stronger, more visual, more immediate elements of the script. It can't replace them. It can't live without them. And when you've got those right, your characters can talk about crackers and the audience will understand.

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