Thursday, November 01, 2012

Talking About Talking


John here, in Connecticut. Hurricane Sandy has come and gone, and we only lost power for 24 hours. I'm thinking of those only a couple hours south with a heavy heart.

I enjoyed Frankie’s post last week about her mystery writing class. In a similar vein, I’m teaching short fiction writing currently, and after reading two Hemingway stories this week, students are understandably focused on dialogue.

Writing effective dialogue is not easy. Ever a fan of John D. MacDonald, even I must admit that Travis McGee’s ability to speak 300 words without interruption never quite seems right. So I was thrilled this week when one of my students used a Harkness discussion to say, “There’s a cadence to the dialogue,” in “The Killers,” and the “he saids seem to make us pause where the writer wants us to.”

Music to my ears. She gets it. What my student calls the “he said” lines—the lines of attribution—I always insist are a writer’s tool, no different than setting details or other props you set on the stage. The writer is constantly pulling the carrot just beyond the reader’s grasp, making her reach and reach and turn the page, and attribution is one of the most effective ways to do so.

After all, we’re not writing plays. Fiction writing, to me, is much more akin to painting, much more visual. I want the reader to forget I’m there. I don’t want to be noticed for good writing or bad, don’t want a reader to even realize she's reading. I’m hoping she falls into the trance and wakes at the end of the book. Part of that means creating scenes a reader can visualize. And even if your go-to play is dialogue to move the scene forward, as mine is, it is still entirely visual. To me, the reader is always seated in the empty chair at the table, watching and listening.

So when characters speak, readers shouldn’t only hear what is said but should be able to see how the characters are saying it, too. For instance, consider this passage from Hemingway’s “The Killers.”

George put the two platters, one of ham and eggs, the other of bacon and eggs, on the counter. He set down two side dishes of fried potatoes and closed the wicket into the kitchen.
“Which is yours?” he asked Al.
“Don’t you remember?”
“Ham and eggs.”
“Just a bright boy,” Max said. He leaned forward and took the ham and eggs. Both men ate with their gloves on. George watched them eat.
“What are you looking at?” Max looked at George.
“Nothing.”
“The hell you were. You were looking at me.”
“Maybe the boy meant it for a joke, Max,” Al said.
George laughed.

The dialogue here, pardon the pun, speaks volumes about the characters. They are clearly outsiders, clearly ominous. Moreover, notice Hemingway's pauses. Narration serves not only to show readers what is happening but to pace the conversation as well. Three sentences separate Max's lines "Just a bright boy" from "What are you looking at?" Here, Hemingway controls the conversation like a speech writer adding dramatic pauses. He also uses narration to create tension. "Both men ate with their gloves on," leaving readers to ask, Why?

Dialogue is a visual art in which readers learn not only who is talking but how and in turn why they are saying what they say.

Dad with Keeley, 3. Happy Halloween, everyone!

1 comment:

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

Nice example of use of dialogue. I'm going to use that one in my class. Actually, that story -- and the film -- are favorites of mine, but I sometimes forget.