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Friday, April 15, 2011

Just a Minute

I have always been fascinated by the way people talk to each other.  In playwriting we call it dialogue, in everyday parlance it is conversation. It is the broken, halted and halting, lame, repetitive jumble of words that tries to convey some meaning between individuals.  As a playwright it is my stock in trade and, despite many hours sitting on buses and in cafes trying to capture its essence, I have never come near to being able to reproducing dialogue in its true sense.  What is wonderful is that most dialogue exchanges make no sense at all when recorded.  Sense and syntax become so jumbled, vocabulary so wretched and torn that trying to find a way of describing it for others to follow is a nonsense.  From these entirely non-scientific observations I have distilled my laws of dialogue: 1) Nobody says what they mean.   Dialoguers circumlocute, they prevaricate, they even lie.  In fact they lie most of the time “How are you feeling today?”  “Not so bad” is a lie we have heard every day.  It means “I’d really love to tell you how bad I feel and how i would like your sympathy but I don’t know whee to start and anyway you are not really interested I can tell.”  2) Dialoguers seldom listen to each other.  Each exchange is a series of statements about oneself.  “Yes I know.  I had the same thing myself.  Well worse, actually”.  3)Nobody talks in straight lines.  The idea of a reasoned argument is laughable.  In a dialogue one makes a series of statements about oneself (See 2) which come under the general heading of the topic being discussed.  This inevitably leads on to 4) Dialoguers can change points of view in a single sentence so that they appear to be holding two utterly contradictory points of view at the same time.   In rhetoric we could say they are advancing a “On the one hand.... on the other hand....”  sort of argument.  But that is not true.  They are just saying and believing completely different and random things. 5) Most dialogue is filled up with nonsense words, phrases and sounds.  I believe linguists call these “phatic exchanges” in which it is the exchange not the meaning which is important. “How’s it going?” is phatic.  But then we get into Malinowski and Sociolinguistics so we’ll step away from that pretty smartly.6) Repetition is mandatory.  Mostly because dialoguers have forgotten what they were saying 2 minutes ago and this is the real idea that is playing in their head cinema, not that stuff you are waffling on about.
In fact, think about the rules of “Just a Minute” in which the contestants have to speak for 60 seconds on a topic without deviation, hesitation or repetition and you have the reverse of the exact rules for actual dialogue.

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