Reading Like a Writer: Kinder Than Solitude and Indirect Dialogue
In a recent class of mine, someone asked why contemporary writers avoid dialogue. I'm not sure they do, but I understand why they might. Dialogue is hard. Mimicking true patterns of speech is tricky and, even if related accurately, might not sound right when written down. The hesitations in real speech can be awkward or boring or they can slow down the scene in unfortunate ways. Yet stylized speech, contoured for efficiency, can seem unrealistic.
So what about indirect dialogue? What can it do for a scene or a story?
In Kinder Than Solitude, a novel about the wrecked lives that follow a mysterious poisoning, Yiyun Li is a master of indirect dialogue.
How long has he known, she asked, and he said four weeks. Four weeks, Moran said, feeling her anger swelling—but before she could launch into a tirade, Josef said that the prognosis had not been dire. Survived by a caring ex-wife, his obituary would read, Josef joked when silence set in.
This indirect dialogue is certainly efficient. There's no need to relate all of the pauses and stutterings that might occur in a line-by-line account. The repetition of "four weeks" allows us to feel some hesitation in the characters, but Li can still get quickly to the point.
Still, I can imagine that a workshop would annihilate this passage. After all, it's a significant moment—one character is learning of another's impending death. And in their disagreement about the handling of the news, it's also a moment of conflict. We all know that high-tension scenes should be played out, word by excruciating word. Readers want scenes! They're where we learn the most about characters. Workshop participants would criticize the decision to skim over it so lightly.
But I think Li is exactly right to present the exchange the way she does because it's exactly right for the novel. It's a story of lost moments and unlived lives. It makes sense to get a retrospective tone in moments like this one.
Indirect dialogue does, often and necessarily, feel retrospective. When lines of conversation are presented in quotation marks, they seem unfiltered. But indirect dialogue removes the quotation marks and puts the conversation into new sentences, ordered and organized. So we feel that the POV character has processed them, at least a little bit. The time and thought it took to do that—we sense it.
So lets look at this passage more closely.
First, this style of indirect dialogue is not the same as direct dialogue without quotation marks. This is obvious because Li uses quotation marks in other places, even in the same conversation, when we get direct dialogue: "I'm coming to see you," she said... "But it's not June yet," Josef said.
Yet Li's indirect dialogue is more precise than summary. She doesn't "tell" about an entire conversation. That might sound something like: "Moran was angry he had waited to tell her, but Josef quickly calmed her." Instead, she moves quickly through a moment of the dialogue with language that mimics the specific words that must have been used.
Much of this is achieved through the pronouns. Instead of "'How long have you known?' she asked," Li switches the "you" for "he." "How long has he known, she asked." This creates the sense of Moran remembering and reflecting on the conversation rather than living it in the moment. It's that retrospection I mentioned. Yet we understand the specific words spoken.
It's worth mentioning that the distance is not quite as great as it might have been. When she shifts the pronouns, Li does not shift the tense. It's "How long has he known," rather than "How long had he known." The "has" keeps us just a little bit closer to the actual moment than "had" would have.
So there's a spectrum of indirectness and Li has chosen a place in the middle—between unfiltered and summarized—just a bit processed. Li uses the language of this particular distance to make us feel the situation more deeply.
Look again at the first sentence: "How long has he known, she asked, and he said four weeks." The style allows Li to create a question without a question mark. We understand perfectly that there is a question because of the word "asked." Yet dropping that bit of punctuation gives a sense of inevitability to the question's answer, as if it has been known all along. When the topic is impending death, this inevitability, this doom, makes sense. Furthering that cause, the indirect dialogue allows Li to combine question and answer into a single sentence, making us understand them as two parts of the same idea.
Li achieves another particular effect when she combines the words of two characters into a single sentence. There's an intimacy between them that might not be felt if their words were dueling, rather than entangled. The sentence structure makes sense for these two, who used to be married and now live far apart, but remain close emotionally.
Also of interest, the passage contains an implied quote inside an implied quote. "Survived by a caring ex-wife, his obituary would read, Josef joked when silence set in." When first moving through the sentence, I don't understand it as a joke. Because the first two phrases mimic the previous sentences, I'm looking for a quote followed by a dialogue tag. So I think that Moran is relating what the obituary will actually read. Consider the sentence up to that point: "Survived by a caring ex-wife, his obituary would read." That moment of believing the obituary is real makes me consider it in a serious and thoughtful way. Then, as I reach the final clause, the meaning shifts. But instead of being funny, the joke is heartbreaking. As the reality of the obituary is wrenched from me as a reader, I get a small sense of it being wrenched from Moran—just like the potential of her life has been torn away. This effect would be nearly impossible to achieve through direct dialogue, with its unambiguous quotation marks.
Indirect dialogue, when used judiciously, can solve the problems of direct dialogue—but only when the moment is right for it. More important, when the moment is really right for it, indirect dialogue can do some amazing things.
When have you noticed a writer using indirect dialogue in a skillful way? Have suggestions for future book reviews? Join the bookish conversation on Twitter with hashtag #ReadingLikeAWriter.
Allison Wyss is teaching "Midwestern Characters: The Polite, the Restrained, the Grotesque" this summer at the Loft. Her stories have appeared in [PANK] Magazine, The Southeast Review, The Golden Key, Metazen, MadHat (Mad Hatters' Review), The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, and Juked. She has an MFA from the University of Maryland. She tweets, mostly about writing, as @AllisonWyss.