October 14th, 2011 / 12:58 pm
Craft Notes & Random

FictionSpeak 2: Dialogue

I was trying to write dialogue the other day. Then I was trying to write about dialogue. There was an article in the Wall Street Journal back in February called “Talk That Walks: How Hemingway’s Dialogue Powers a Story,” by John L’Heureux. I found this article because I had just read “Hills Like White Elephants.” I don’t feel like talking about Hemingway. Though his dialogue is masterful, I really hate his treatment of the girl. I also hate L’Heureux’s treatment of the girl for different reasons, but I like what he says at the conclusion of this article:

“Dialogue suggests what people mean by what they’re saying, even if they themselves aren’t fully aware of it. Sometimes, of course, the most effective dialogue culminates in silence. This is more than irony. It is what characters do to one another.”

Because the writer is god, she knows what her characters mean. I don’t know about that. I like Silence. I’d like to know about un-dialogue please. When I was thinking about dialogue, I started writing this:

What is dialogue but the memory of nothing-ever-said? How many palettes from which to choose? You say this, you dothisthingtome. I say something back, which is worse in my mind than knifing a dying dog. I want to write about a conversation had. A once-had conversation. But it’ll never work. Nothing works but the working, someone said, out of darkness. Nothing but the eventual loss of a thing. Loss of a pain, loss of a memory. Is it or is it not the same face on the coin? The same face before bed beckoning.

I wake up angry. Wanting a fight. Which I’ll never get, which you’ll never give me. Ever-heaver. Ever-body-distiller.

Dialogue is a thing we do in stories. Or a thing smug people do in offices with bright lights.

“Let’s have a dialogue about this.”

“Fuck you.”

And then the piece turned into something else entirely. I was trying to teach freshman writing students about dialogue a few weeks ago, and I gave them a bunch of revision checklists. I asked questions of them like, “Is the dialogue natural? Does your dialogue portray personality? Is your dialogue interesting? [what does that mean?] In class, we’d read “Hills Like White Elephants” aloud. We talked about mystery, about saying, not saying, about how things are said. I didn’t teach these kids a goddamn thing, though a few of them caught on.

My question is this. I don’t want dialogue. I want not-dialogue. What are the best books that make minimal but insanely good use of dialogue?

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  1. Benjamin Grislic

      Waiting for Godot. I mean that both ironically and not. Beckett’s dialogue is minimal, though not in a quantified way. And during all the banter, there is a feeling of non-communication and “not-dialogue” that doesn’t ever go away.

  2. Mr. Ian M. Belcurry

      The dialogue in “Stoner” is very minimal, but when it happens is so effective. Everyone loves “Stoner” though. The dialogue doesn’t go back and forth, just states how things are between Stoner/parents, stoner/teacher, stoner/wife, stoner/ asshole head of department, stoner/mistress, stoner/daughter (little and older), stoner/good friend. They just state what is, and never question each the other.

  3. Sarah Malone

      I’ve been re-reading Nadine Gordimer’s The Pickup which largely subsumes dialogue into the strong narrator’s voice, both typographically (no quotation marks) and with minor characters not even identified by name. Dialogue becomes texture, opening space in the page, blurring narrator, character thought and voice:

      She laid a slack hand on his smooth throat and marveled, to him: To hear silence. We never do.

      To him this was not silence, this lullaby of distant traffic she took for it! Silence is desolation: the desert.

      Round the village?

      Everywhere. As soon as you walk some steps, some few yards from your house.

      Your house?

      Of course.

      And you used to go and play there, with your friends?

      No, no—not out there, never. In the street.

      What’d you play—football? What were the games, oh, when you weren’t learning about the guts of cars!

      Then they can laugh at the imposter mechanic […]

      The effect (for me) is an incredible momentum, the sense of a wider rush and swell that the characters are borne along on.

  4. lorian long

      beckett is probably king of the insanely minimal. molloy tops. i think burroughs’s wild boys is a good one too for how to use dialogue like a knife.

  5. Bernerdawg

      “That’s all we do, isn’t it — look at things and try new drinks?”

  6. Cvan

      Dialogue is way overrated.  If it’s “natural,” it’s fake.  If it’s unnatural, the reader thinks it’s fake.  You can’t win.

  7. deadgod

      Find a simple drink you like and stick with it.  Don’t quit paying attention while you have the chance.

  8. jesusangelgarcia

      I don’t think it’s dialogue that’s overrated — but minimalism (or too much reliance on cutting back to the point of writerspeak rather than characters/people speaking). Too much of that going around, which (to my ear) sometimes feels like too many writers sound exactly the same.

      I like dialogue. I like talkers. I don’t even need “environmental grounding,” or whatever. I like speech sounds. I like slang. I like subtext. I like double entendre. I like fucking around. Duras wrote entire books of dialogue. Talk can tell the story.

      Of course, there are other ways. I like those ways, too.

  9. jesusangelgarcia

      All fiction is “fake.”

  10. jesusangelgarcia

      Like bourbon straight. The light up the sky.

  11. deadgod

      Well, that can be how it feels to struggle to write dialogue, but it’s too pessimistic.  I think McCarthy writes dialogue beautifully–its naturalness and economy somehow powering each other.

  12. Bernerdawg

      It was just a bonbon from “Hills.”

      Glenlivet, neat with a cherry.

      What were we talking about?

  13. Nathan Huffstutter

      In my bar, you could have Glenlivet, you could also have a cherry. No size tip in the world would get me to add one to the other.

  14. Bernerdawg

      “In my bar, you could have Glenlivet, you could also have a cherry. No size tip in the world would get me to add one to the other.”

      “I’ve been to your bar. You don’t even have scotch.”

      “The priniciple applies nonetheless.”

      “And the nature of the objection? We’re talking cherries, not salmon croquettes. The stem is removed, the fruit not eaten. Your tone implies you’ve never tried it.”

      “I certainly have. I just didn’t like it.”

      “I must know the reason.”

      “There is no reason.”

      “Bullshit. There is always a reason.”

      “I’ll think one up then.”

      “Ok. Tell me when you have it.”


  15. Sydney

      When I think of great dialogue, Henry James or George Eliot come to mind before Hemingway. Hemingway is treated as this undisputed master of the unsaid, but his style is distinctive enough that, when mimicked, it’s “Hemingwayesque”. Granted he’s not the only proponent of minimalist dialogue–Carver too–but I’m wary of endorsing minimalism’s monopoly over the way we perceive good dialogue and its creation. When Isabel rejects her initial marriage proposals in Portrait of a Lady, she parries for pages and pages, giving a great many reasons that are all honest and yet keep her true motivations concealed.  

  16. Nathan Huffstutter

      “It tastes like licorice,” the girl said and put the glass down.
      “That’s the way with everything.”

  17. John Minichillo

      Hills is an experiment, which is why the term experimental always makes go ???

      It’s great at showing subtext and trying to approximate how people talk, but it’s not a good model of dialogue. Note the accumulation of “it”s, which is done to good effect, so that the meanings “it” signify multiplies. But in most dialogue this would flop.

      Dialogue has two elements: making it seem natural as well as making it artistic. If you only do the first, if it’s really the way people really talk, it will come across as pedestrian and mundane. And it reads flat.

      Because of this second element, when it’s well done, it has a lyric quality, it snaps.

      Gertrude Stein in Three Lives? or Three Stories? (trying to remember) she also experiments with trying to make the dialogue as people really talk and it’s repetitive and riddled with pronouns, a chore to read.

      Dialect writing also tries to approximate real talk and can be disastrous and also highlights the artificiality of trying to represent the real.

      So good dialogue maintains the illusion of the real with art and polish and a little poetry.

  18. alexisorgera

      thanks for your thoughts, all.