Monday, November 23, 2009

A Few Words on Dialogue

Those of you following my Character Interviews series might have determined that I'm obsessed with dialogue (and you'd be kinda sort of maybe right). So, for today, allow me to not quite bore you with a not quite tantalizing discussion of the super supremo literary element of DIALOGUE [said in the Monster Truck Rally announcer's voice.]

Now, few authors choose to work solely with dialogue (those that do generally are referred to as playwrights and screenwriters). But like in plays, dialogue can actually tell the story in regular fiction. Carefully worded dialogue can tell you everything from characterization to setting, plot, and conflict. And for certain audiences, especially the younger crowd, it's essential that narrative summary does not overwhelm dialogue (this isn't a rule, but an educated guess). But even with older audiences, no matter how brilliant the prose, dialogue will often be preferred to narrative summary--dialogue is usually easier to read and often feels more engaging. As readers, we often feel a greater connection to a character if we can hear their voice. Even a first person narrative summary does not have the same kind of impact as dialogue because the words of dialogue are meant to be spoken, and the implied vocalization of a word transforms abstract thought into concrete action. Moreover, think of all the lousy books you've read; what's the first thing you do to get through it? You skip through narrative summary, focusing on the dialogue. Why? Because dialogue is often the most interesting part of a book.

Consider Ernest Hemingway's short story "Hills Like White Elephants," which is, in my humble opinion, probably one of the best examples of dialogue. I won't analyze the entire story for you--its been analyzed to the point of near extinction in probably every creative writing class, and it's all over the web. But here's a small excerpt from HLWE to give you a view of the master of dialogue at work.

An excerpt from Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants." The entire short story can be found here.

"I’ll go with you and I’ll stay with you all the time. They just let the air in and then it’s all perfectly natural."

"Then what will we do afterwards?"

"We’ll be fine afterwards. Just like we were before."

"What makes you think so?"

"That’s the only thing that bothers us. It’s the only thing that’s made us unhappy."

The girl looked at the bead curtain, put her hand out and took hold of two of the strings of beads.

"And you think then we’ll be all right and be happy."

"I know we will. You don’t have to be afraid. I’ve known lots of people that have done it."

"So have I," said the girl. "And afterwards they were all so happy."

"Well," the man said, "if you don’t want to you don’t have to. I wouldn’t have you do it if you didn’t want to. But I know it’s perfectly simple."

"And you really want to?"

"I think it’s the best thing to do. But I don’t want you to do it if you don’t really want to."

"And if I do it you’ll be happy and things will be like they were and you’ll love me?"

"I love you now. You know I love you."
You can learn alot about this story in just these few lines of dialogue. Notice that Hemingway doesn't even give attribution for much of the dialogue. It's not really necessary, as there are only two characters and their voices are very distinct. It's also obvious that the "American" (as he's identified at the beginning of the story) is trying to pressure the girl into something she doesn't want to do; this is emphasized through the clever literary device of repetition (of the American's reassurances that all will be well if she goes through with it). We also get a good sense of the voice/tone in their responses to one another. Consider:

Girl: "So have I...And afterwards they were all so happy."

American's response: "Well...if you don’t want to you don’t have to. I wouldn’t have you do it if you didn’t want to. But I know it’s perfectly simple."

It's not until you read the American's defensive response that you realize the girl's comment must have been laced with sarcasm--thus revealing the girl's feelings about the situation without the need to burden her dialogue with a cumbersome explanation of her tone. You can learn much from just this excerpt, but I won't burden you with any more analysis, especially considering that there are PhD's who have made it their life's mission to analyze and break down Hemingway's fiction....

However, I thought I might attempt to use Hemingway's dialogue techniques to see how I fare in a short piece of dialogue-based fiction myself. I wrote it in probably fifteen minutes, so don't expect too much. But I hope it comes off alright.

Carolina Valdez Miller

"Mother? Pamela did not get to the whites yesterday, and now I haven't a tank top to wear under my sweater."

"Did you tell Pamela to do the whites yesterday?"

"Of course not. I didn't think you'd appreciate me taking your job from you. Besides Thursdays are always whites."

"Perhaps you should tell her now."

"It's too late to do them now! The party already began."

"So tell her to hand-wash the shirt and throw it in the dryer. You have plenty of time before you need to be there, Annalise."

"Ughhh, no. Forget it. I'll just wear a different sweater."

"Whatever you want dear. Will you please tell Pamela to bring over some Chardonnay? Have her pour a glass of the 2006 Newton from the wine chiller."

"You mean from the wine chiller in the kitchen? Uh, over there?" Annalise tilts her head at a defiant angle.

"Yes, dear."

"Christ, Mother, I'll get it myself."

"No, dear. I don't think Pamela would appreciate you taking her job from her."

"I've got it, Mrs. Tallons." Pamela limped into the kitchen, smiling widely over her shoulder towards the breakfast table. "I left a fresh white tank top on your bed, Annalise. It should go well with the green sweater you meant to wear tonight." Her smile faded into a flat line as she pulled the bottle from the chiller.

"Whatever." Annalise rolled her eyes and stalked away from the breakfast table.

Now, this is hardly Hemingway--not even close, but I tried to write a piece that wouldn't require much attribution. If it worked well (and I'll leave that for you to decide), you should have been able to follow who was saying what, what their likely tone of voice was, hand gestures, facial expression, etc. Additionally, you should have been able to get a sense of what the mother-daughter relationship was like, who Pamela was, and how both mother and daughter viewed Pamela as a member of their household. In short, I hope you were able to get the gist of the primary conflict as well as a sense of some underlying issues/themes.

There are rules to using dialogue--nothing hard and fast, but some basics that can be shared. But this post is ridiculously long, so I'll save those rules/tips/techniques for another post. And perhaps follow through with another short--on Wednesday. Tomorrow, however, I'll return to the Character Interviews series with an interview with a vampire. Seriously.

P.S. I urge you to experiment with dialogue yourself. Of course, few works of fiction would fare well without narrative summary or attributive tags, but try writing a scene with mostly dialogue and see how well the elements of your story shine through.


  1. I love working with dialogue - that's when the characters really come to life and talk to us in their own voices. I'm currently breaking my addiction to dialogue tags. I've only had a few relapses :) I keep reminding myself to trust the reader - it seems to be working!

  2. Oh man - there are SO many places that dialogue can take you and so many different ways it can be used.

    Whites is wonderful :-) You accomplished everything you wanted to. The characters are easily identified - so is Pamela's roll and the way she's treated. The mother-daughter relationship comes across clearly... mother seems disinterested (and also really stuffy!) and daughter seems frustrated.

    Really great example of what you can do with dialogue!

  3. Jemi, I love that...gotta trust the reader. That's exactly what it boils down to, doesn't it? An ability to trust the reader? I think when writers overexplain, it's likely because they assume the reader is too thick-headed to figure things out. But truly, readers are pretty smart, I think.

    Sara, you're a doll. I simply adore you. Thank you for all your lovely comments. I'm still feeling very uncomfortable displaying my work for just anyone to see, so it does my heart good to get some positive feedback, even though I'm starting to think you're biased in my favor ;) Hehe. But I think we all could use a friend who likes to point out all the good stuff about us. Thank you.

  4. Good examples. Ooh, your excerpt makes me want to read more. I'm getting a strong vanity/selfishness vibe from those two. I felt sorry for Pamela. We've been in her shoes before, haven't we?

  5. Dude. I may be biased in your favor bc I heart you, HOWEVER I would also tell you the truth if something didn't work! (Or if, at least, I thought it didn't work)

    Silly Carol <3

  6. Jenny, what a wonderful compliment! I was thinking of expanding it into a short story. Thank you for the encouragement. I spent the early part of my youth in a world that didn't know how to live without servants, but a good portion of my life struggling to make ends meet. The struggles have helped me to see the absurdity that sometimes occurs in situations like this--the strange paradox whereby people can have so little respect for someone that they come to rely on so heavily. I'm thrilled that you picked up on it through the dialogue.

    Sara, you are the perfect crit partner. I trust you implicitly. It's just my insecurities that always make me see my own writing as a red-headed bob. Thanks for being so amazing, Awesomer.

  7. For some reason, the Pamela character put me in mind of Dilsey in Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. The Compsons are stunningly self-involved and narcissistic, kind of like Annelise and Mrs. Tallons, and Dilsey's the one who holds the household together. She's more noble than the supposed gentlefolk she's a servant to, as the last section of the novel makes clear.

    All of that's to say you've done a great job of evoking three different characters with that short piece. You should put more of your work out there!

  8. Simon, I'm floored. Dilsey was like the best character in the history of fiction aside from Benjy and maybe Huck Finn. And probably Frodo. And Lady Mcbeth. And there's also...never mind. flatter me...err, Pamela. How lovely to have reminded you of such a magnificent work. It's like comparing a speck of dust to a mountain, but I appreciate the kind words nonetheless. I'll consider posting more of my work in the future...if I can forget my insecurities. Thanks for always checking in on my posts.


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