“A Cold Potato,” by Peter De Vries

Dialog:

Sitting in a lawn chair tinkering with a broken bed lamp, Tom Bristol listened with half an ear to an account his wife, Alice, was giving of some neighbors with whom they’d recently become acquainted.  “Guess what the Twinings do,” she said.  She was sitting across a parasol table from him.  “When Bob is in the house, say, and Julia’s back in that studio barn where she does her clay modeling, they write each other notes.  And guess how they get them to one another.”  She paused, waiting for his response, but he was engrossed in his puttering.  He chewed his tongue and pulled faces as he worked.  “Do you know what they do?” Alice asked.  Tom grunted enquiringly, poking an electric cord through the back of the lamp base.  “They give them to Clementine—that cocker they have, you know—and Clementine delivers them.  And waits for answers!”  Alice laughed aloud.  “Isn’t that darling?”

(My mentor Howard Pease continues) Now, there is nothing wrong with this paragraphing—or, rather, lack of paragraphing—if you are quick at getting the idea that it is Alice who is doing all the talking.  However, let’s see what happens when we use the Henry James method.

Sitting in a lawn chair tinkering with a broken bed lamp, Tom Bristol listened with half an ear to an account his wife, Alice, was giving of some neighbors with whom they’d recently become acquainted.

“Guess what the Twinings do,” she said.  She was sitting across a parasol table from him.  “When Bob is in the house, say, and Julia’s back in that studio barn where she does her clay modeling, they write each other notes.  And guess how they get them to one another.”  She paused, waiting for his response.

But he was engrossed in his puttering.  He chewed his tongue and pulled faces as he worked.

“Do you know what they do?” Alice asked.

Tom grunted enquiringly, poking an electric cord through the back of the lamp base.

“They give them to Clementine—that cocker they have, you know—and Clementine delivers them.  And waits for answers!” Alice laughed aloud.  “Isn’t that darling?”

In using this method of paragraphing dialogue and using it consistently, the reader soon learns to know when one character stops talking and/or acting, and when another character begins.  From the reader’s viewpoint, this is a distinct gain.

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