Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A Scene in Three Phases

My friend Sheryl Monks, a brilliant writer, taught a dialogue workshop on the following scene from Micheal Cunningham's story, "White Angel." I've adapted it a bit, I'm more or less stealing this idea from her fabulous class.

A dialogue scene is (basically) made of three parts: the actual dialogue, the action, and exposition or narrator input--thoughts, explanations, etc. I think it's helpful to dissect a scene in this way, cutting all the way back to the dialogue and then adding the other layers back in, watching a pattern, or something like a rhythm emerge.

Phase One: Dialogue

"Shhh," I say to Carlton.
"Boys?" our mother calls from the kitchen. "Set the table like good citizens," she calls.
"Okay, ma," Carlton replies
"Zap," Carlton whispers. "Zzzzzzooom."
"Did we do it right?"I ask him.
"We did everything perfect, little son. How are you doing in there, anyway?"
"Perfect, I guess."
"You guess. You guess? You and I are going to other planets, man. Come over here."
"Where?"
"Here. Come here."
"You and I are going to fly, man," Carlton whispers close to my ear. "Fly," he says.
"You wait, Frisco," he says. "Miracles are happening."

Phase Two: Dialogue + Action

We are sprawled on the sofa in front of the television. Our mother makes dinner in the kitchen. A pot lid clangs.
Our father is building a grandfather clock from a kit. We can hear him in the basement, sawing and pounding. I know what is laid out on his sawhorses--a long raw wooden box, onto which he glues fancy moldings. A single pearl of sweat meanders down his forehead as he works. A mouse nibbles inside the wall. Electrical wires curl behind the plaster, hidden and patient as snakes.
"Shhh," I saw to Carlton. He is watching television through his splayed fingers. Gunshots ping. Bullets raise chalk dust on a concrete wall.
"Boys?" our mother calls from the kitchen. I can hear her slap hamburger into patties. "Set the table like good citizens," she calls.
"Okay, ma," Carlton replies. Our father hammers in the basement. I can feel Carlton's heart ticking. He pats my hand.
We set the table, spoon fork knife, paper napkins triangled to one side. After we are done I pause to notice the dining room wallpaper: a golden farm, backed by mountains. Cows graze, autumn trees cast golden shade. This scene repeats itself three times, on three walls.
"Zap," Carlton whispers. "Zzzzzzoom."
"Did we do it right?" I ask him.
"We did everything perfectly, little son. How are you doing in there, anyway?" He raps lightly on my head.
"Perfect, I guess." I am staring into the wallpaper.
"You guess. You guess?" You and I are going to other planets, man. Come over here."
"Where?"
"Here. Come here." He leads me to the window. Outside, the snow skitters, nervous and silver, under streetlamps. Ranch-style houses hoard their warmth, bleed light into the gathering snow.
"You and I are going to fly, man," Carlton whispers close to my ear. He opens the window. Snow blows in, sparking on the carpet. "Fly," he says, and we do. For a moment we strain up and out, the black night wind blowing in our faces--we raise ourselves up off the cocoa-colored deep-pile wool-and-polyester carpet by a sliver of an inch.
We settle back down. Carlton touches my shoulder.
"You wait, Frisco," he says. "Miracles are happening."
I nod. He pulls down the window, which reseals itself with a sucking sound. Our own faces look back at us from the cold, dark glass. Behind us, our mother drops the hamburgers sizzling into the skillet. Our father bends to his work under a hooded light bulb, preparing the long box into which he will lay clockworks, pendulum, a face. A plane drones overhead, invisible in the clouds. I glance nervously at Carlton. He smiles and squeezes the back of my neck.

Phase Three: Dialogue + Action + Narrator Input (exposition, etc.)

Hours later, we are sprawled on the sofa in front of the television, ordinary as Wally and Beav. Our mother makes dinner in the kitchen. A pot lid clangs. We are undercover agents. I am trying to conceal my amazement.
Our father is building a grandfather clock from a kit. He wants to have something to leave us, something for us to pass along. We can hear him in the basement, sawing and pounding. I know what is laid out on his sawhorses—a long raw wooden box, onto which he glues fancy moldings. A single pearl of sweat meanders down his forehead as he works. A mouse nibbles inside the wall. Tonight I have discovered my ability to see every room of the house at once, to know every single thing that goes on. Electrical wires curl behind the plaster, hidden and patient as snakes.
Shhh,” I say to Carlton who has not said anything. He is watching television through his splayed fingers. Gunshots ping. Bullets raise chalk dust on a concrete wall. I have no idea what we are watching.
“Boys?” our mother calls from the kitchen. I can, with my new ears, hear her slap hamburger into patties. “Set the table like good citizens,” she calls.
“Okay, ma,” Carlton replies in a gorgeous imitation of normality. Our father hammers in the basement. I can feel Carlton’s heart ticking. He pats my hand to assure me that everything’s perfect.
We set the table, spoon fork knife, paper napkins triangled to one side. We know the moves cold. After we are done I pause to notice the dining room wallpaper: a golden farm, backed by mountains. Cows graze, autumn trees cast golden shade. This scene repeats itself three times, on three walls.
“Zap,” Carlton whispers. “Zzzzzzoom.”
“Did we do it right?” I ask him.
“We did everything perfect, little son. How are you doing in there, anyway?” He raps lightly on my head.
“Perfect, I guess.” I am staring into the wallpaper as if I were thinking of stepping into it.
“You guess. You guess? You and I are going to other planets, man. Come over here.”
“Where?”
“Here. Come here.” He leads me to the window. Outside, the snow skitters, nervous and silver, under streetlamps. Ranch-style houses hoard their warmth, bleed light into the gathering snow. It is a street in Cleveland. It is our street.
“You and I are going to fly, man,” Carlton whispers close to my ear. He opens the window. Snow blows in, sparking on the carpet. “Fly,” he says, and we do. For a moment we strain up and out, the black night wind blowing in our faces—we raise ourselves up off the cocoa-colored deep-pile wool-and-polyester carpet by a sliver of an inch. Sweet glory. The secret of flight is this—you have to do it immediately, before your body realizes it is defying the laws. I swear it to this day.
We both know we have taken a momentary leave of the earth. It does not strike either of us as remarkable, any more than does the fact that airplanes sometimes fall from the sky, or that we have always lived in these rooms and will soon leave them. We settle back down. Carlton touches my shoulder.
“You wait, Frisco,” he says. “Miracles are happening.”
I nod. He pulls down the window, which reseals itself with a sucking sound. Our own faces look back at us from the cold, dark glass. Behind us, our mother drops the hamburgers sizzling into the skillet. Our father bends to his work under a hooded light bulb, preparing the long box into which he will lay clockworks, pendulum, a face. A plane drones overhead, invisible in the clouds. I glance nervously at Carlton. He smiles and squeezes the back of my neck.



2 comments:

Jessie Carty said...

wow! what a fantastic exercise. I might have to "borrow" this one as well :)

Kathy said...

I think in dialogue (actually, as a Southerner, I hear voices) but have a terrible time getting characters from the door to the chair. Your exercise suggests I should stop fighting myself, write the dialogue, and then fill in the rest, at least on those days when characters won't budge. Thank you.