Thursday, February 5, 2015

Read This: "Hills Like White Elephants" by Ernest Hemingway, and an Exercise in Dialogue

Here's a huge story in four very short pages. One of the many interesting things about it is that it's told mostly in dialogue.

The subject being discussed, an abortion, is never named, and in general much of the power in the story, and much of the life in the dialogue, comes from what the characters don't say, but communicate indirectly, through sarcasm, metaphor, repetition of words or phrases, and actions.

Read this story twice. (It takes less than five minutes to read, so don't tell me you can't spare the time.) The first time, let it wash over you. Just experience it. The second time, try to spot the indirect ways of communicating mentioned above. Look for an example of each one.

"Hills Like White Elephants" by Ernest Hemingway

Now an exercise from John Gardner's classic The Art of Fiction:
Write a dialogue in which each of the two characters has a secret. Do not reveal the secret but make the reader intuit it. For example, the dialogue might be between a husband, who has just lost his job and hasn't worked up the courage to tell his wife, and his wife, who has a lover in the bedroom. Purpose: to give two characters individual ways of speaking, and to make dialogue crackle with feelings not directly expressed. Remember that in dialogue, as a general rule, every pause must somehow be shown, either by narration (for example, "she paused") or by some gesture or other break that shows the pause. And remember that gesture is a part of all real dialogue. Sometimes, for instance, we look away instead of answering.
To my mind this is a kind of French farce-y idea of "a secret." I like this exercise, but think it works better when you conceive of a secret as any unspoken thing that's present when two people talk—and those things are always present. Listen to your own thoughts next time you have a conversation. Do they match up exactly with what you say? Neither do the other person's. One great thing about literature is that it can give you a glimpse into the secrets of someone other than yourself.

Set your timer for ten minutes and do the Gardner exercise now. The key is to make your "dialogue crackle with feelings not directly expressed." Notice he doesn't say "facts," but "feelings." Those—not hidden lovers or pink slips—are the real secrets, present in every interaction: too complex and tender and personal to be stated outright. They are what make dialogue come alive.

Carl Fredrik Hill, untitled, no date, d. 1911

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