Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Varian: An Exploration of Dialogue-Heavy Scenes

Note: This is part of an essay written during my first semester at Vermont College. As I'm currently struggling with the balance between advancing story verses developing character in my work-in-progress, I thought it would be helpful to post one of my early essays on dialogue and emotion.


The goal of most fiction, especially when told from the first-person point of view, is to engage the reader to the point where the reader experiences everything that the main character experiences; in a sense, the reader becomes the main character. This closeness is achieved through a number of literary devises, such as sensory detail and interior thoughts. However, in instances where an author wishes to move a reader through a scene very quickly, the author must cut out as much unnecessary material as possible, while still conveying the thoughts and feelings of the main character.

Ron Koertge is a master of witty and believable dialogue, and in his novel Stoner and Spaz, Koertge crafts dialogue-heavy scenes that whisk the reader through the novel. While the dialogue is believable, there are instances where Koertge leaves the reader to wonder what the characters are thinking and feeling in the scene.

One scene that has mixed success in showing character traits and emotions is a conversation between Ben, a sixteen year old with cerebral palsy, and Colleen, the resident druggie, on the day after she kisses him.
“Look, let’s go over to Marcie’s.”

“I don’t know, Ben.”

“Oh, c’mon. I just want to see her camera.”

Colleen shakes her head. “Making out when I’m loaded is one thing; making social calls is...I don’t know. Doesn’t one of us have to wear pearls for shit like that?”
“It’s not a date.”

“It wasn’t a date last night, and I ended up with my tongue down your throat.”

“Like I said, you were loaded. So leave your stash at home. I think totally sober you’ll find me pretty easy to resist.”

“I don’t get you sometimes. What do you want with me anyway?”

“I want you to go to Marcie’s with me.”

She looks down at her black fingernails. “Let me think about it.”

“I’ll call her after school. Then I’ll call you.” (Koertge 83)
Koertge is successful in crafting dialogue that is true to his characters; Ben wants (or perhaps even needs) to be near Colleen, while Colleen is brash and distrusting. Koertge particularly thrives in showing the conflict within Colleen; she knows she shouldn’t be with Ben, yet she doesn’t overtly push him away. As Colleen looks down at her black fingernails, the reader sees that she’s mulling over Ben’s offer.

Koertge is less successful in showing Ben’s thoughts and emotions in this scene. This is Ben’s first conversation with Colleen since she kissed him. Ben has never even kissed another girl before Colleen; he is no doubt feeling a mix of emotions. However, none of these emotions are present in the scene. Colleen asks Ben, “What do you want with me, anyway?” Ben’s reply, while technically truthful, doesn’t reveal anything about what Ben really wants, or how Ben really feels about Colleen. Does he want to kiss her again that night? Does he want to kiss her again right there, in the middle of school, in front of the teachers and students that pack the hallway? Or, is he afraid that she may not really be interested in him—that the kiss the night before was indeed based more on her drug-induced state of mind rather than true desire for Ben?

By writing scenes with a minimal amount of interior thought, Koertge relies on the reader to draw conclusions as to the “emotional core” of the character. However, while the above scene doesn’t reveal the intensity of Ben’s desire for Colleen, it is clear from previous scenes that Ben is romantically interested in Colleen. Koertge relies on the reader to use previously provided material in order to come to his or her own conclusions about the level or Ben’s desire for Colleen.

Unlike the previous passage, Koertge is very successful in showing character traits and emotions through dialogue in the first speaking scene between Ben and his grandmother in Stoner and Spaz. Colleen and Ben meet by chance at an old movie theater, and when Colleen catches a ride home with him and his grandmother, she ends up throwing up on the side of his grandmother’s car.
My grandma let her forehead touch the steering wheel. “What a horrible girl,” she says to the speedometer. “I didn’t realize you even knew people like that.”

“I don’t really know her.”

“Why is she acting so peculiar?”

“She loaded.”

“On drugs?”

“Not Jujubes. Not anymore, anyway.”

“Why in the world did you invite someone like that into my car?”

“Grandma, we bumped into each other at the movies. It’s no big deal.”

“Did she ask you for money?”

“No,” I lie.

“She didn’t recruit you to traffic in narcotics, did she?”

“Well, she did give me this big bag of baking soda to hold for her.”

“Ben, this is no laughing matter.”

“Grandma, Colleen won’t even remember this tomorrow.”

“Well, I’m certainly going to try and banish it from my memory.”

Not me, I think. No banishing for me. (Koertge 15-16)
Though the scene is scant on interior thought and physical action, the reader is able to ascertain important information about Ben and his grandmother, and about how Ben feels about Colleen. The only physical action in the scene is of Ben’s grandmother resting her head on the steering wheel; the short drive with someone so “horrible” exhausts her. In addition to horrible, Koertge’s word choices of peculiar and banish, as seen in the context of the sentences in the passage, paint Ben’s grandmother as very formal. She is also very protective of Ben, and sees him as being na├»ve. Earlier in the novel, Koertge drops hints that alert the reader of the grandmother’s character traits: she drives a Cadillac (14), forces Ben to take an apple as a snack (5), and buys him expensive clothes (12).

Unlike his grandmother, Ben isn’t worried about Colleen’s “bad” influence on him, and is actually very witty and sarcastic when discussing Colleen. By placing Ben’s interior thoughts at the end of the passage, Koertge gives the reader a glimpse of how Ben really feels about Colleen at this moment, without sacrificing the quick flow of the dialogue.

In addition to being sarcastic, Ben lies to his grandmother during their conversation. Koetrge could have used physical description to convey that Ben was lying, such as having him look away from his grandmother, or perhaps Ben could focus on his sweaty palms. Instead, very simply, Koetrge uses, “‘No,’ I lie.” By using a simple speaker attribute instead of adding unnecessary description to the scene, Koertge is able to keep the reader firmly rooted in the “here and now” of the passage.

As you can see, Koerge is most effective in his dialogue-driven scenes when he provides either minimal interior thought, sensory details, or physical actions in the scene, or when he clearly establishes a character’s emotional state in a previous scene.

Works Cited

Koertge, Ron. Margaux with an X. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press, 2004.


  1. Very interesting and true. Almost that what you say and how you say it are equally important.

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  2. Great post, Varian.
    Also that: "I lie" told me something else about the narrator--a kind of moral self-consciousness, which made me identify more deeply with him, maybe?

    I take my Hemingway in moderation, but your posting made me think of "Hills Like White Elephants." That story always reminds of the icebergs that can float beneath the tips of dialogue. If you know what I mean.

  3. Karen,

    Yes, I totally get what you mean. In my opinion, "Hills Like White Elephants" is one of the best short stories to study for dialogue! Thanks for suggesting it!