Estimated reading time: 4 minutes
Ernest Hemingway wrote some of the greatest and most influential stories of the 20th century. While he never wrote a book on the actual art of writing (unlike the infinitely awesome “On Writing“, by Stephen King) he did leave a whole lot of stories and novels for us to examine, dissect and learn from.
Today we’ll take a look at Hemingway’s dialogue writing techniques. While dialogue is sometimes considered a byproduct of a story, Hemingway knew that good dialogue could carry a story. One such story is “Hills Like White Elephants” in which an American “man” is trying to convince a “girl” to have an abortion. The beauty of the short story is that it is almost entirely told through dialogue. Every emotion is told through the choice of words that the characters speak and the interruptions, beats, moments of silence and misdirection techniques employed by Hemingway.
Don’t drag dialogue longer than you have to. If someone’s got something to interject then let them interrupt the character currently speaking, if their point is important to the story. Hemingway uses this to great effect when the man, having convinced the girl to carry out the abortion, is now attempting to get her to actually want to do it; he doesn’t want her to do it just because he asked her to. This gets on the girl’s nerves and we can see that she doesn’t want to pursue this conversation by the way she keeps interrupting him.
“I don’t want you to do anything that you don’t want to do–”
“Nor that isn’t good for me,” she said. “I know. Could we have another beer?”
“All right. But you’ve got to realize–”
“I realize,” the girl said. “Can’t we maybe stop talking?”
Interrupting a character maintains momentum and keeps the story moving forward. It also reveals a lot about the character doing the interruption. Are they tired of hearing the other character speak? Do they have something important to say? Or are they simply unaware that each interruption is pushing the speaker closer and closer to an eruption of white-hot rage?
SILENCE AND MID-DIALOGUE BEATS
A beat is a small pause in the tempo of a sentence. When used in dialogue it can either break up the monotony of “Dialogue. Action. Dialogue. Tag.” or it can create a short pause in an otherwise intense sequence of dialogue lines without tags or actions. Adding “active silence” (in which the lack of response is blatantly pointed out) is an extreme measure which kills the momentum of dialogue. Used sparingly, silence can heighten the drama and add tension to a situation.
Here’s an example of mid-dialogue beats. Notice how the beat (“the girl said” mid-way through a line of dialogue) creates a very short pause where we can imagine the girl taking half a second to think of an answer, and then redirecting the dialogue to ask a question herself (“Is it good with water?”).
“We want two Anis del Toro.”
“Do you want it with water?”
“I don’t know,” the girl said. “Is it good with water?”
Silence is used to great effect in the short story to deliver the girl’s issues and indecision regarding the abortion. In the excerpt below we see it twice in a row, accented by the fact that the man keeps on talking without taking notice of her lack of a reply.
“The beer’s nice and cool,” the man said.
“It’s lovely,” the girl said.
“It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,” the man said. “It’s not really an operation at all.”
The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on.
“I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig. It’s really not anything. It’s just to let the air in.”
The girl did not say anything.
Sometimes a character doesn’t like where the conversation is going. A good way to fix that, at least temporarily, is to completely derail the conversation into a different topic. Sometimes, this might be a topic the character wants to discuss. Sometimes it might be something innocuous as a replacement to something the character doesn’t want to discuss. When you know a person well enough you’ll start picking up clues during conversations (especially difficult ones) that the topic is about to change to something you find unpleasant and the best way to avoid that is to misdirect the speaker into picking up a different topic.
In our short story, the girl, sensing the man is about to get confrontational, uses misdirection to pull the conversation towards something a bit more agreeable: drinking.
“They look like white elephants,” she said.
“I’ve never seen one,” the man drank his beer.
“No, you wouldn’t have.”
“I might have,” the man said. “Just because you say I wouldn’t have doesn’t prove anything.”
The girl looked at the bead curtain. “They’ve painted something on it,” she said. “What does it say?”
“Anis del Toro. It’s a drink.”
“Could we try it?”
Did you catch that? It’s a masterful technique. People do it all the time and, when writing dialogue, it can help diffuse tension so that you can pick it up later when things have inevitably gotten worse and there’s no way the character can avoid the subject.
Know of any other techniques that Hemingway used to craft masterful dialogue? Let me know in the comments!