“The Labors of Hercules” by Agatha Christie

Dialog:

(My mentor Howard Pease introduces an exercise) For Example No. 1 we’ll examine dialogue paragraphs that do not contain any hurdles, yet show no consistency in method.  Here are ten consecutive paragraphs from Agatha Christie’s The Labors of Hercules:

Hercule’s voice interrupted him.

“Why will they be all right I when you are gone?”

Hugh Chandler smiled.  It was a gentle, lovable smile.

He said, “There’s my mother’s money.  She was an heiress, you know.  It came to me.  I’ve left it all to Diana.”

Hercule Poirot sat back in his chair.  He said, “Ah!”

Then he said, “But you may live to be quite an old man, Mr. Chandler.”

Hugh Chandler shook his head.

He said sharply, “No, M.  Poirot.  I am not going to live to be an old man.”

Then he drew back with a shudder.

“My God! Look!”  He stared over Poirot’s shoulder.  “There—standing by you. … ”

(Howard Pease continues) This paragraphing wastes space—and paper—by giving a separate paragraph to the speech of a character and a separate paragraph to the action of that same character.  I’ve often wondered if Agatha Christie wants to make her stories appear longer than they really are.  Let’s use the Henry James technique.

Hercule’s voice interrupted him.  “Why will they be ‘all right’ when you are gone?”

Hugh Chandler smiled.  It was a gentle, lovable smile.  He said, “There’s my mother’s money.  She was an heiress, you know.  It came to me.  I’ve left it all to Diana.”

Hercule Poirot sat back in his chair.  He said, “Ah!”  Then he said, “But you may live to be quite an old man, Mr. Chandler.”

Hugh Chandler shook his head.  He said sharply, “No, M. Poirot.  I am not going to live to be an old man.”  Then he drew back with a shudder.  “My God!  Look!”  He stared over Poirot’s shoulder.  “There—standing by you. …”

By using this method, what have we gained?  We’ve gained several lines of print.  We could revise, also, and delete he said several times and the prose would still be clear as well as less wordy.

Prose, like everything else, changes through the years.  Until the middle of the nineteen-twenties, writers used synonyms galore in an effort to get away from the monotony of using said too frequently.  The protagonists declared, asserted, offered, observed, responded, rejoined—the list is almost endless.  Then a rebellion set in.  Dashiell Hammett and Ernest Hemingway dropped all these synonyms.  Their characters simply said something, usually in short declarative sentences.

(from a collection of opening paragraphs at www.secondroot.com)

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