The Less Said

Dialogue in fiction forces readers into the role of actors: even on the private stage of one’s mind, good dialogue must be read well – it must be mentally acted out – if its pleasures are to illuminate themselves. One’s natural urge is to read lines of speech at the same pace one reads everything, but conversations, of course, don’t travel at the speed of the eye on the page: they halt, rush, stutter; they gather strange pockets of momentum and inertia.

A writer who crowds his dialogue with qualifiers, to ensure that each line is imagined exactly as he imagines it, tests the reader’s patience, and often loses his confidence. People indeed exclaim things in real life, but dialogue is never more tenuous and tiresome than when character after character ‘exclaims’ things or ‘cries’ them ‘aloud’; and nothing is more poisonous to a passage of dialogue than a cancer of adverbs – ‘icily,’ ‘drily,’ ‘frankly.’ The hesitation, the tone, the pitch: well-written dialogue informs us of these aspects by the shape of the speech itself; they go unsaid. Good dialogue comes with instructions, but they are unprinted, hovering invisibly beneath the lines, and they are DIY. The responsibility for finding and interpreting them belongs to the reader.

Take, for instance, this exchange from ‘Spirits’, a long story by Richard Bausch, reprinted in 2004 as part of the triptych Wives and Lovers:

She took a long pull of her drink. “Sure you don’t want any?”
“No, thank you,” I said.
“I’m going to sell this place and move. Change my name back.”
“I’m sorry your son isn’t coming.”
“He doesn’t want to be seen in this town.”
I shook my head as if to say how unfortunate this was, but she thought I was disagreeing with her.
“I’m serious,” she said. “He doesn’t want to be seen. He won’t ever come back here. He told me he wouldn’t, and I can’t say I blame him.”
“No,” I said. “I can understand that.”

The narrator is a young writer, and a recent arrival in a small Virginia town where he is to join the faculty of a local college; the woman is a motel owner whose ex-husband was recently discovered to have been responsible for dozens of rapes and murders of young girls across the country across a stretch of decades.

On the surface it doesn’t seem like a particularly exceptional group of lines. Nothing much happens. Aside from the son’s decision not to visit, the reader doesn’t really learn anything about the characters he didn’t already know. One might be inclined to burn through it carelessly.

But to appreciate the subtle, human touch of Bausch’s writing, a reader must commit himself to the passage’s slow, morose, late summer pace.

For instance, a long pause is in order between the narrator’s ‘No, thank you’ and the woman’s ‘I’m going to sell this place.’ Bausch doesn’t give us such directions explicitly; the reader has to attune himself to the moods and personalities of the characters, to the fragility and social awkwardness of the moment. And there ought to be another long pause before the narrator says: ‘I’m sorry your son isn’t coming back.’ He is uncomfortable, and he is casting about for something to say; his own words would feel almost physically unnatural at that moment. Bausch is too delicate a writer to have his narrator think: ‘I was forcing myself to make conversation.’ The reader needs to feel for himself the strain of the conversation, as its awkward, terraced lines drop suddenly and precipitously from one to the next.

Moreover, we get the sense that when the woman says, ‘I’m going to sell this place and move,’ she isn’t really speaking to the narrator: she is, rather, giving voice to a gloomy inner monologue; he just happens to be there to hear it. She talks right past him. I suspect her eyes never truly focus on her interlocutor, except perhaps when she says: ‘He doesn’t want to be seen in this town.’ Those italics are the only real cue Bausch gives us as to how his characters are speaking; the striking emphasis on ‘seen’ suggests the way her eyes might goggle out as she says it, demonstrating to the narrator just what it is to be seen. Writers who overuse italics in speech – Martin Amis is occasionally guilty of this – burden and degrade their dialogue, and infantilize the reader in the process; Bausch deploys his italics sparingly. Anger or fear should be evident without the aid of typography. Good dialogue speaks for itself.

Even dialogue tags – ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ and ‘I said’ – can, depending on the placement, suggest the best way to read a line. V. S. Naipaul, to name just one writer, often uses a tag at the beginning of a line of dialogue, as opposed to its middle or its end, to reflect a pause for breath or thought or dramatic effect. His characters often expatiate at length, and putting the tags at the starting points of big, bricked dialogue adds a further, visual stateliness to the page.

Good dialogue thrives in a soil of restraint. Novice writers often pack in too much information around conversation between characters, mistaking it for fertilizer; they don’t trust the organic interaction of naked speech. Philip Roth certainly trusted naked dialogue: his brief, unnerving novel Deception is nothing but.

For an excellent example of dialogue read aloud, I recommend this podcast on The New Yorker’s website, featuring Thomas McGuane reading James Salter’s extraordinary and troubling story ‘Last Night’. McGuane, himself also a fine writer, gives a sharp, brisk reading to each line that captures the spare, unsparing timbre of Salter’s writing.

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~ by mackenz on May 28, 2009.

One Response to “The Less Said”

  1. Excellent post! I agree.

    Another great, if perhaps obvious, example of well-written, spare dialogue is that in Hemingway’s writing. Like the writers you discuss in this post, Hemingway strips everything else away, leaving only the bare words of the characters, with the occasional “he said” or “she asked” to keep the reader aware of who is speaking. And the writing is brilliant because of it. Rarely in real life does a sentence have only one meaning. And authors who use too many adverbs or descriptions in their dialogue limit a statement to one interpretation and therefore lose the reality of a conversation. For instance in “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” in the wife’s comments to her husband, one can sense many things – her embarrassment, sarcasm, contempt, jealously, her feelings of being trapped, sadness, anger. All of this complexity would be destroyed if Hemingway had written “she said x contemptuously” which would remove all nuance from the conversation.

    Furthermore excellent dialogue, as you touch upon in your post, captures the awkwardness of real conversation and the way people often talk past one another or jump from one topic to another. If a dialogue is too carefully structured or explained it loses that reality. In “Hills Like White Elephants” the characters jump from talking about the mountains, to discussing their drinks, to skirting around the central issue of the story, just as in reality people talk pleasantries while struggling to speak about intimate issues. Good dialogue recreates the verbal sparring, odd tangents, and illogical flow that occurs in conversations.

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