Dialogue. Simply put, it is one of the most crucial elements of any form of written narrative. The words a character speaks, the interplay of words between two or more characters… its importance cannot be overstated. Well, maybe it can be overstated. I guess we’ll find out by the end of the episode and/or this post. I suppose in a way that makes me a scientist. Somebody grab me a lab coat.
There is so much that we can say about the topic! [Under the heading of Full Disclosure: When you listen to the episode you’ll quickly hear there is much we can’t say as well. My mouth, at least, seemed to lose its connection with my brain a couple times. Under the heading Too Much Disclosure, Probably: There was beer involved.] But we thought the best way to demonstrate the points we made were to read a few excellent samples of dialogue from some of our favorite authors.
The first was Craig’s selection from the Hemingway short story “Hills Like White Elephants.” In that story two people – a man and a woman – are talking at a bar, and it gradually becomes obvious they are talking about the woman being pregnant and possibly having an abortion.
“The beer’s nice and cool,” the man said.
“It’s lovely,” the girl said.
“It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,” the man said, “It’s not really an operation at all.”
The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on.
“I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig. It’s really not anything. It’s just to let the air in.”
The girl did not say anything.
“I’ll go with you and I’ll stay with your all the time. They just let the air in and then it’s all perfectly natural.”
“Then what will we do afterward?”
“We’ll be fine afterward. 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.”Ernest Hemingway – The Complete Short Stories
We see in this selection Hemingway’s unmistakable style. After using a sprinkling of tags (the man said, the girl said) which establishes speaking order and an audible rhythm, he eliminates them altogether. As a reader we never lose track of who is speaking because the pattern is established with the first two sentences.
Now, Craig cops to being an Hemingway fanboy on the podcast. While I do not make the verbal confession, the fact that my first example is also from Hemingway should indicate to you that it’s true for me as well.
From The Sun Also Rises comes my favorite line in all of literature. The dialogue here is being used to establish the natures of two very divergent characters, Robert Cohen and Jake Barnes (who also happens to be my favorite character in all of literature).
“This is a good place,” he said.
“There’s a lot of liquor,” I agreed.
“Listen, Jake,” he leaned forward on the bar. “Don’t you ever get the feeling that all your life is going by and you’re not taking advantage of it? Do you realize you’ve lived nearly half the time you have already?
“Yes, every once in a while?”
“Do you know that in about thirty-five years more we’ll be dead?”
“What the hell, Robert,” I said. “What the hell.”
“It’s one thing I don’t worry about,” I said.
“You ought to.”
“I’ve had plenty to worry about one time or other. I’m through worrying.”
“Well, I want to go to South America.”
“Listen, Robert, going to another country doesn’t make any difference. I’ve tried all that. You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another. There’s nothing to that.”
“But you’ve never been to South America.”
“South America, hell! If you went there the way you feel now it would be exactly the same. This is a good town. Why don’t you start living your life in Paris?”
“I’m sick of Paris, and I’m sick of the Quarter.”
“Stay away from the Quarter. Cruise around by yourself and see what happens to you.”
“Nothing happens to me. I walked alone all one night and nothing happened except a bicycle cop stopped me and asked to see my papers.”
“Wasn’t the town nice at night?”
“I don’t care for Paris.”Ernest Hemingway – The Sun Also Rises
There is so much happening in this section of dialogue! To say it expounds fundamental differences in the characters of Robert and Jake is a bit obvious, but the depth to which it does it is remarkable.
Craig and I talk quite a bit about sentence tags in the podcast episode. Our main points were that they certainly are necessary, and can be used to great effect, but they also, through over-use, or perhaps more accurately non-judicious use, can actually make reading the dialogue difficult. After all, when you listen to people speak they do not conclude each time they do with , “I said.” Unless they’re weird. It can lead to what I call an “ear-clunk.” Something that doesn’t sound right to you “mind’s-ear” and makes you stumble as you read. It takes you out of the rhythm of natural conversation.
Craig’s other example comes from John Steinbeck’s classic, Of Mice and Men.
‘I forgot, Lennie said softly. ‘I tried not to forget. Honest to God I did, George.’
‘O.K. – O.K. I’ll tell ya again. I ain’t got nothing to do. Might jus’ as well spen’ all my time tell’n you things and then you forget ’em, and I tell you again.’
‘Tried and tried,’ said Lennie, ‘but it didn’t do no good. I remember about the rabbits, George.’
‘The hell with the rabbits. That’s all you ever can remember is them rabbits. O.K.! Now you listen and this time you got to remember so we don’t get in no trouble. You remember settin’ in that gutter on Howard street and watchin’ that blackboard?’
Lennie’s face broke into a delighted smile. ‘Why sure, George, I remember that…but…what’d we do then? I remember some girls come by and you says…you say…’
‘The hell with what I says. You remember about us goin’ into Murray and Ready’s, and they give us work cards and bus tickets?’
‘Oh, sure, George, I remember that now.’ His hands went quickly into his side coat pockets. He said gently, ‘George… I ain’t got mine. I musta lost it.’
‘You never had none, you crazy bastard. I got both of ’em here. Think I’d let you carry your own work card?’John Steinbeck – Of Mice and Men
Again, a masterful use of dialogue. Steinbeck uses more tags than Hemingway in our two examples, and even uses an adverb (something we discuss in detail), but you can hear the innocence of the hulking Lennie, the frustration of his protector, George. George’s repetition of ‘The hell with…’ is also extremely effective in getting this frustration across. (You’ll also want to hear my totally righteous excuse for why I did not select anything from Steinbeck as my example.)
In my final selection we jump from the 1920’s and 1930’s to the 1990’s (I mistakenly say the ’80s in the episode. You’ll want to tune in just to hear me be wrong, I’m sure), and the second novel of one of my favorite authors of the past 25 years, Wally Lamb’s brilliant, I Know This Much Is True.
Again we learn the nature of a character, in this case Leo, from his interactions with others. He is eavesdropping on a pair of men described as “… a tall, skinny doofus and the other a squat fire hydrant with eyes.”
“Just what we needed,” Leo mumbled as we sat down. “Popeye and Bluto blocking our view.”
“Call her,” the skinny one kept goading his no-neck friend.
“The one I was talking to at the bar.”
“Hell, yeah. Go for it, man! Her name’s Cindy.”
No Neck picked up the phone and dialed. “Hello? Cindy? You don’t know me, but I got a message for you from Dick Hertz.”
He cupped his hand over the receiver and winced in his effort not to laugh. “Whose Dick Hertz? Well, now that you mention it, Cindy, mine’s killing me. Care to give it some relief?” He slammed down the receiver. Their loud guffawing and table-whacking made half the people in the place look over in our direction.
“Jesus Christ, Birdsey, these guys make you look suave,” Leo said. “No wonder we’re losing the fucking war.”
No Neck’s buddy stared over at us for a couple of seconds, then leaned forward and tapped Leo on the shoulder. “Excuse me, pal, but what’d you just say?”
“Huh?” Leo said.
“I asked you what you just said. To your friend here. Something about my buddy and me and the ‘fucking war’?”
Leo looked bewildered. The he laughed. “Fucking whores, is what I said. I said this place is full of fucking whores.”
“Oh. Well.” He looked over at his buddy and back again. “You got that right. I thought you said something else.”
“No problem, my man,” Leo said, flashing him the peace sign. I shook my head and smiled.Wally Lamb – I Know This Much is True
This example does several things with dialogue at once: introducing us to Leo, letting us know a bit about the time frame of the scene, as well as the narrator’s stoic acceptance of his friend’s eccentricity to name a few.
There is a good deal more discussion in the episode about all of the themes touched on here, so be sure to digitally run as fast as you can to listen to Episode Nine! Also, because Craig and I both believe that one of the best things an author can do to improve his/her writing is to READ the citation line of each example is a link to the book discussed. Much as are the words “Episode Nine” above. I can do that sort of thing because we are living in the future.
And be sure to stay tuned, as we’ll be discussing dialogue again in our epic, TENTH EPISODE, (bringing us to exactly ten more episodes than we thought we’d get away with!)