When forming and revising textual dialogue, it can help to study not only the textual masters, such as Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” but also film. Though it is true that excellent literary dialogue will follow natural patterns of speech in real life and can be studied in this manner, the dialogue in literary fiction also requires a stylized form, a sculpted and artistic aesthetic. Film dialogue can be an excellent addition to the writer’s study materials.
Notice how in the opening scene of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, we are thrown right into the conversation without preliminaries or explanations. Two people, Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, who know each other very well, have a history, and have already discussed their current topic many times over. The scene is as much about unveiling character as it is about the actual plot of the narrative. It offers irony—i.e., given Honey Bunny’s girlish sweetness, we are jolted when she jumps up with gun, telling everyone she’ll execute every last one of them.
In short time, Tarantino has established not only characterization, setting, etc., he’s established a general tone, atmosphere and tempo for the entire film. After this opening, the viewer knows s/he is on a particular ride not often taken and anything can happen. Imagine how this scene would have presented if the viewer knew from the start that they were discussing robberies and intended to rob the diner in which they were sitting. Additionally, consider how the further irony of already knowing that they do not want to actually shoot anyone contrasts to the way the other diners certainly perceive them. This opening is all about perception. Perception games are foundational to excellent dialogue.
In our reading for this week, we’ll explore Ernest Hemingway’s famous “Hills Like White Elephants,” an often go to text for dialogue in literary fiction. As you read/reread the story, consider which elements in “Hills” are reflected in Tarantino’s opening “Diner Scene.” But first, let’s review two basic structural essentials for dialogue in literary fiction, the “dialogue tag” and the “action beat.”
The Dialogue Tag
Very simply, this is a minimalist way to “tag” who is speaking: “she said.” The platinum rule is to keep it minimal. “Said” is a literary tag that easily falls into the background like stage hands wearing all black as they move furniture between sets. Though you might be tempted to get fancy, don’t. Don’t. A simple “she said” is far superior to “she exclaimed joyfully.” Keep it simple and use only when necessary. When you can let the dialogue simply progress without tags, do it. Trust your reader to understand that if there are only two people speaking, each line break indicates that the other person has begun to speak. For instance, in the below dialogue from “Hills Like White Elephants” the third line has neither a dialogue tag nor an action beat, yet, we understand who the speaker is:
“The look like white elephants,” she said.
“I’ve never seen one,” the man drank his beer.
“No, you wouldn’t have.”
The Action Beat
Like the dialogue tag, the action beat identifies the speaker, but it also does one more thing. It identifies action as well. The action beat can be an excellent technique when used sparingly, such as in the above excerpt from “Hills Like White Elephants.” When using an action beat, there is no reason for a dialogue tag.
Minimalism Is the Key
Budding writers will often overuse both the dialogue tag and action beat. The general rule is to use them as sparingly as possible. Once the speakers have been identified at the beginning of an exchange, let the dialogue flow without identifying the speaker. If there are only two speakers, the reader will understand that each time the line breaks and indents, the other speaker is talking.
- “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway
- Pulp Fiction: “Diner Scene” by Quentin Tarantino (Above clip)
- American Psycho: “Introduction to Patrick Bateman” (This section is narrated as indirect dialogue with a twist. Because Bateman is the poster child for the Ru-42 gene, Ellison writes this scene as Bateman disembodied and narrating himself. It is a brilliant technical adaptation of the narrative/indirect dialogue technique.
There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman. Some kind of abstraction. But there is no real me. Only an entity. Something illusory. And though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable, I simply am not there.
American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis
1. Choose an extended section of dialogue in one of your short stories or a section of dialogue you have wanted to explore further and lengthen. *In literary fiction, it is true that good dialogue is most often minimal and used sparingly, but a section or two of lengthier, strategic and surgical dialogue can change pacing and cover many narrative needs in an artful and interesting way. Make sure that the section of dialogue has more intention than merely relating information. It should be an integral point between two characters. It should present some irony or perception play.
2. First things first, get rid of any dialogue tags other than “said” or some form of said. Fancy dialogue tags are no nos in literary fiction. A writer can get away with one once in a while if it has been earned as essential. “Said” or “says” disappears within the narrative and the reader is then able to focus on the dialogue.
3. Now, look for dialogue tags that can be changed to “action beats.”—i.e., Instead of: “Hand me the gun,” she said. Use: “Hand me the gun.” She tipped the brim of her hat down.
4. Next, look for places where you can eliminate both the dialogue tags and the action beats and simply let the characters speak. Minimizing tags and beats is an excellent way to tighten your dialogue and let the reader focus on the character’s words and meanings.
5. Now—go with me on this, I promise it is one of the best dialogue techniques I use in my own writing—save the section to a new document and eliminate all the dialogue quotes and dialogue tags. Just take them out. Don’t worry. You can put them back in later, but right now, take them out and rewrite the dialogue so that the reader does not need the dialogue quotes or the tags to know who is speaking. Consider how the narrative flows with the dialogue when the quotes are removed. Whether or not you put the quotes back in, this will help you form a synchronicity between narrative voice and dialogue, either contrasted or parallel or both, this will improve the overall flow.
6. Now, consider how the dialogue opens. What do the characters know that the reader does not yet know? Cut any preliminaries. By giving the characters intimacy that the reader must earn in the dialogue, it presents the characters are having more history and interest. Often, the most interesting dialogue is between two characters who know each other better than they wished they knew each other.
7. Identify at least one point of perceptual irony. This irony might not make itself known until the end of the scene, such as in the above film excerpt. This irony may linger beneath the surface, giving the reader a great deal of room to work it out for him/herself. Also, consider how the surface of the dialogue might use perceptual irony as well. In the above film excerpt, Pumpkin and Honey Bunny are discussing optional targets so to minimize the violence of their crimes.
8. How does the setting reflect the unspoken details of the dialogue? In “Hills” the landscape literally mirrors the unspoken subject of the characters’ discussion.
9. Names are essential and can be fun. Honey Bunny. Pumpkin. The girl. The man. Jig. The names speak more about the relationships between the characters and their perceptions of each other than what their fictional parents wanted. As the writer, you can give your creations names, especially in dialogue, that are ironic, curious, everyman/woman. Explore the names or nicknames used in the dialogue and how they resonate in the essence of that dialogue and scene.
10. Textual dialogue is usually most effective when spoken between two characters. Sometimes, the narrator speaks to the reader directly. Consider the excerpt and film clip from American Psycho, as the narrator/protagonist speaks to himself and the reader in the mirror. Does your work lend itself to creative technical twists in dialogue?
Did you learn anything new about one or both characters? What?
Submit for Individualized Feedback