March 19th, 2010 / 1:40 pm
Craft Notes

Talk Talk

Last night, I did a reading at Pilot Books. At Pilot’s request, I did an informal craft talk after the reaing. I chose to talk a little about how to approach writing dialogue. What follows are my introductory remarks.

Let’s talk about characters when they talk. Stories—mostly—have these things called characters, and more often than not, those characters come in sets, in twos, in threes, in groups and parties and piles. And so then there we are—we writerly types—with our groups and parties and piles and sets of characters, and we have these characters in these rooms we’ve made, these rooms we’ve furnished with all sorts of nice little objects for our characters to look at and consider and think about the history of and maybe to throw at one another—and what then? Why the throwing? What then for the characters there together?

Well, God. Sometimes these characters will have to go ahead and talk to one another. How? How should we—we writerly types—approach the characters talking to each other dilemma? How the heck do we write dialogue?

Okay, so today I’ll give you—you writerly types—a way to approach dialogue. And I’ll use a book that you may or may not have read, but very likely know, as a way to think about this approach to dialogue. And this book is a book where the two main characters never speak to one another. Where they can’t speak to each other because they don’t speak the same language. Where they can’t speak to each other because they aren’t even the same species. But this will work, anyway.

So, Hemingway wrote a book called The Old Man and the Sea. And in The Old Man and the Sea, an old man goes out to sea. And he fishes. And he hooks himself a big, big fish. And the, for quite a lot of the rest of the book, the man and the fish pull at one another. For pages and pages they pull at one another. He—the old man—pulls at the fish. And it—the fish in the sea—pulls at the old man. They pull and pull and they fight and fight.

This is dialogue. This is how to approach dialogue.

The old man spends much of the struggle between himself and the fish talking. He talks to the fish. He compliments the fish and he gets angry at the fish. He says things to the fish. But the fish doesn’t hear any of them. And the fish doesn’t respond to the things the old man says. This is not dialogue. This is the old man talking to himself. This is the old man revealing things about himself to the reader, and Hemingway hides this—this work of character building—by making it look like dialogue. But it’s not.

Between the old man and the fish is a line. The line is in the old man’s hands. A hook with the line is in the fish’s mouth. It’s the pulling that is the dialogue.

When people communicate, they do so to reveal to the listener their wants and needs. I want to get away, says the fish. I want to reel you in and devour you, says the old man. I am pulling to get away, says the fish. You are pulling me further out to sea, and I will give you some line to tire you out, says the old man. Characters communicate with each other like this.

And, significantly, the fish is deep within the water. And the old man can’t really see him. He can feel its pull. He can feel when the fish is tiring and he pulls softer. He can feel when the fish’s need to communicate its desire to escape is invigorated and he pulls harder. They talk through the line. But the old man only understands so much, because the deep and roiling water of the sea is there between himself and the fish.

When you write dialogue, you have to remember that between two characters there is the plane of the water and the depths of the ocean. Two people speaking the same language still communicate imperfectly. There is the surface of communication, and there is the subtext. There is the old man talking to himself, and the old man interpreting the desires of the fish. But when we talk to each other—we who understand each other—we are just as often talking to ourselves as the old man is. The real communication is often just the subtext. The real communication is the line in our hands. The line we pull at, and fight with. The line that leaves blisters on our hands and tears in our cheeks and lips—the consequences of our imperfect communication.

That’s what I have to say. Any questions?


There is a band in Seattle called Great Falls. They used to be called Hemingway. They rule:


Any questions about that?

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