THE 7 TOOLS OF DIALOGUE

#4 CULTIVATE SILENCE.
A powerful variation on the sidestep is silence. It is often the best choice, no matter what words you might come up with. Hemingway was a master at this. Consider this excerpt from his short story “Hills Like White Elephants.” A man and a woman are having a drink at a train station in Spain. The man speaks:

“Should we have another drink?”
“All right.”
The warm wind blew the bead curtain against the table.
“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.

In this story, the man is trying to convince the girl to have an abortion (a word that does not appear anywhere in the text). Her silence is reaction enough.

By using a combination of sidestep, silence and action, Hemingway gets the point across through a brief, compelling exchange. He uses the same technique in this well-known scene between mother and son in the story “Soldier’s Home”:

“God has some work for every one to do,” his mother said. “There can’t be no idle hands in His Kingdom.”
“I’m not in His Kingdom,” Krebs said.
“We are all of us in His Kingdom.”
Krebs felt embarrassed and resentful as always.
“I’ve worried about you so much, Harold,” his mother went on. “I know the temptations you must have been exposed to. I know how weak men are. I know what your own dear grandfather, my own father, told us about the Civil War and I have prayed for you. I pray for you all day long, Harold.”
Krebs looked at the bacon fat hardening on the plate.

Silence and bacon fat hardening. We don’t need anything else to catch the mood of the scene. What are your characters feeling while exchanging dialogue? Try expressing it with the sound of silence.

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