By Alyce Miller
Featured Image: Rouen Cathedral, West Façade, Sunlight by Claude Monet, 1894
Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington
What people don’t say is often as important as, or even more important than, what they do say. Too much exposition, or what I call “soap opera dialogue” (e.g. “You remember my brother John who tried to murder Tiffany, before she was caught stealing from Marsha’s cousin who changed her name….”), or its opposite, too little, as is often found in the “generic social glue” of the how’sthe-weather variety, can undermine the progression of story and essential character development (unless, of course, weather is key to the story).
We often think we learn about people through what they say and how they say it, but other forms of communication are just as crucial. Dialogue can happen without speech. Words can fail. Gesture can summon meaning beyond language.
In Hemingway’s dialogue-rich story set in an empty train station in Spain, “Hills Like White Elephants,” the two traveling protagonists he calls respectively “the man and the girl” carry on what might sound to the untrained ear like a conversation about nothing when, in fact, they are about to make an important decision as to whether “the girl” should have an abortion. Whichever path they choose, it is clear that the course of their life together will be forever changed. At one point, after a good deal of back and forth, the girl says, “Then I’ll do it because I don’t care about me.” When the man counters with “I don’t want you to do it if you feel that way,” the girl doesn’t respond. Instead she stands up and walks to the end of the station. Her choice to substitute action for speech and distance herself momentarily from the man says more than anything she could at that moment. Her attention drifts instead to the landscape, the river on one side of the track and the mountains on the other, while she stands in that place of in-betweens and uncertainty. No conversation could convey her dilemma more precisely at that moment.
Dialogue, like all of writing, mirrors music, composed of inflection, pause, rhythm, melody, resonance, and timing. Dialogue is not simply a representation of what real people in real life say; most real-life dialogue is dull. The trick to writing dialogue is selection. And it takes a good ear. Much of real life’s dialogue is utilitarian: calling the bank to check on a deposit, asking the doctor for a prescription, telling your dog to get off the couch. But what if the character is about to discover the bank deposit has been stolen? What if the doctor will refuse the necessary medication? What if telling the dog to get off the couch introduces the character’s dog, and their relationship, which is central to the story?
Sometimes the silent gaps in characters’ conversations work to maintain lines of tension. In Edward P. Jones’s “The First Day,” the mother wants her young narrator daughter to attend a better school in another district. Refused at the school door by an administrator, the mother pauses on the steps. The child asks, “Mama, I can’t go to school?” The mother doesn’t reply immediately and instead takes the child’s hand and begins to walk her toward another school. When the mother does finally speak, she says, “One monkey don’t stop no show.” The gap between question and action helps transcend and distill the cumulative minutiae of daily life, by maintaining lines of tension. What will happen next? What is the mother intending to do?
Silence that isn’t broken is another tool. Imagine this scene. A character confesses to a woman friend, “I love you.” She responds by saying nothing. The first character is left with the weight of those words hanging in the air, and the tension of something withheld and unfinished.
Remember when Gabriel from James Joyce’s “The Dead” turns to his wife whom he finds crying after she’s heard a song at a party they’ve attended, and asks, “Why, Gretta?” Those two simple words not only invoke the growing distance between them, but also render a major theme of the story—Gabriel’s overall emotional paralysis. After Gretta describes the boy she once loved who died for her, she cries herself to sleep. Gabriel, “shy of intruding on her grief,” walks to the window, but maintains his gaze on the sleeping Gretta. Silence illuminates his situation more clearly (and sadly) as he begins to reflect on “how poor a part he . . . had played in her life.”
In this case, it is silence that permits Gabriel to retreat even further into his thoughts. At the end of “The Dead,” when he finally turns to look out the window, it is the quiet image of the all-enveloping snow over the living and the dead that has the final say.
Alyce Miller is the award-winning author of five books and more than 250 stories, essays, articles, and poems. She currently lives in the DC Metro Area.
Originally appeared in NOR 17