Dialogue Alone

leavesAaron Petrovich has written a fascinating novella, The Session, in which he tells an entire story through dialogue. Much of the book is a conversation between two police detectives, but another character joins the exchange in the middle of the story. Solely through dialogue, Petrovich differentiates between characters, establishes plot and narrative and creates compelling tension.

The following is the unedited version of a story told almost completely through dialogue. Below the unedited version is my edit of the same text. My editorial comments are at the bottom of this post.

“Do we have any more of that wine?”
“What wine—the white one?”
“No, the red. The Chianti. The one that the Thompsons brought over when we had dinner the other night.”
“Which one? I don’t remember that one.”
“You know, the one that the Thompsons brought over.”
“Oh, that one. Yeah, that one was pretty good.”
“Yeah, it was.”
“Here you go. Do you want any cheese?”
“No. No cheese. But could you pass me the map?”
“Yeah. Here you go. I think I’ll have some cheese. So what do you think about the bank robbery? Where should we enter the building?”
“Well, I think this back door might be the way to go.”
“Did you talk to Lenny? Did he get the crowbars?”
“Yeah, he got them.”
“I think we need to be careful about the outdoor security light. It’s not on this diagram, but we know it’s there. If we don’t manage to shut it off, we’ll be pretty visible when we break in.”
“What kinds of things do they have in the bank? Will we be rich when it’s all over?”
“Well, we have to find the safety deposit boxes. That’s where all the valuable things are.”
“OK. Well, let’s start planning.”

The final edited passage reads something like the following.

“Do we have any more of that wine?”
“What wine—the white one?”
“No, the red. The Chianti. The one the Thompsons brought over when we had dinner the other night.”
“Here you go. Do you want any cheese?”
“No. No cheese. But could you pass me the map?”
“Yeah, so what do you think about the plan? Where should we enter the building?”
“Well, I think this back door might be the way to go.”
“Did you talk to Lenny? Did he get the crowbars?”
“Yeah, he got them.”
“I think we need to be careful about the outdoor security light. It’s not on this diagram, but we know it’s there. If we don’t manage to shut it off, we’ll be pretty visible when we go in.”
“So do you think we’ll be rich when it’s all over?”
“Well, we have to find the safety deposit boxes. That’s where all the valuable things are.”
“OK. Well, let’s start planning.”

Below is the text with my editing marks. My comments to the author are in brackets and italicized. The portions I cut appear with a strike-through, and the portions I added are underlined. (In a normal Word document with “Track Changes,” my editing marks are in red, and my comments are in their own separate section, not inserted into the text.)

“Do we have any more of that wine?”
“What wine—the white one?”
“No, the red. The Chianti. The one that the Thompsons brought over when we had dinner the other night.”
“Which one? I don’t remember that one.”
“You know, the one that the Thompsons brought over.”
“Oh, that one. Yeah, that one was pretty good.”
“Yeah, it was.”
[Although this back-and-forth dialogue might be realistic, it doesn’t contribute to the plot. In this case, it might be better to sacrifice some realism in order to keep the action moving. Too much dialogue with little plot movement can also get confusing; the reader might forget which character is speaking.]
“Here you go. Do you want any cheese?”
“No. No cheese. But could you pass me the map?”
“Yeah,. Here you go.[Even though this character might say, “Here you go” twice in real life, I think it’s better to vary his/her comments in this exchange.] I think I’ll have some cheese. [Once again, I think this sentence can go, in order to keep the plot moving.] sSo what do you think about the planbank robbery? [Presumably, both characters know that they are talking about a bank robbery, so it seems unlikely that they would actually refer to it as such. The reader might not yet know what the plan is, but the nature of the plan will become clear soon enough.] Where should we enter the building?”
“Well, I think this back door might be the way to go.”
“Did you talk to Lenny? Did he get the crowbars?”
“Yeah, he got them.”
“I think we need to be careful about the outdoor security light. It’s not on this diagram, but we know it’s there. If we don’t manage to shut it off, we’ll be pretty visible when we break in.” [The identity of this speaker is unclear. So far, it has seemed like the first speaker (the one who says, “Do we have any more of that wine?”)  is the leader of the two. Now, it seems as though the second speaker (the one who says, “What wine–the white one?”) has taken over the leadership role. Is the second speaker making this comment about the security light? Why is the document now a diagram? It was a map, above.]
What kinds of things do they have in the bank? Will we So do you think we’ll be rich when it’s all over?” [Once again, who is speaking here? This seems more like the second speaker (the one who says, “What wine–the white one?”), but the comment’s position makes it seem like it belongs to the first speaker. I shortened this comment, because it seems as though these two would have already discussed what they will find in the bank.]
“Well, we have to find the safety deposit boxes. That’s where all the valuable things are.”
“OK. Well, let’s start planning.” [Haven’t they already started planning?]

As in Petrovich’s novella, straight dialogue can make for compelling reading, as long as the conversation really moves the plot along and as long as the reader is able to distinguish between the characters.

[Please post your comments about this Sample Edit. To submit your own work for a free edit–and inclusion in a posting on this blog–please write to me at jane@beaumonthardy.com.]

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One Response to “Dialogue Alone”

  1. admin says:

    Gail Gentry’s “Take My Hand” (ChicletsLit blog) is a fine example of a story told through dialogue alone. She creates tension in the plot and develops her character with no narrative at all. http://ow.ly/d2u6B

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