Dialog Does Not Ring True

Ta-Nehisi Coates writes:

One interesting technical problem for writers today is how to invent characters who are plausible readers—without writing a campus novel. The problem is bigger than you might think: ever since Jane Austen most fictional characters have talked and thought like people who read fiction. Many basic techniques of the modern novel (dialogue, inner monologue, moral suspense) require characters who think in something like novelistic prose.

You notice the difficulty in a novel like Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, where media people of the early Oughts are forced—ingeniously and enjoyably—to have verbally complicated thoughts about their lives, as if they went home every night and curled up with Edith Wharton. You don’t actually overhear conversations like that at the Waverley Inn.
Others who tackled the problem and made it central to their fiction include: Bret Easton Ellis, David Foster Wallace, Mary Robison, Don DeLillo, Tom McCarthy. They are not writing “pastoral,” they are not writing about people less educated than the reader. They are writing about us.
To overhear an ordinary character thinking deeply, in complex sentences, about his or her life involves a new suspension of disbelief. This is one of the things I love about contemporary fiction at its best—that it makes us overhear, and believe.
The jumble inside our heads everyday sounds nothing like the written page. It would be interesting to analyze this in the Bible, where it seems to me that most thoughts that are expressed are short and terse – i.e. real.

6 thoughts on “Dialog Does Not Ring True”

  1. Erich Auerbach’s “Mimesis” studies the stylistic differences between OT narrative and Homeric epic. He finds the former “realistic”. Interesting and informing read.

    Mack Harrell
    West Orange, NJ

    1. Thanks Mack, that’s interseting. I’ve heard of Auerbach’s book a lot, but have not read it. I have Sternberg’s “Poetics of Biblical Narrative” but I haven’t finished it. I think he might make similar points.

      1. I’m not familiar with Sternberg. Auerbach is definitely worth reading. He shows that Homer achieves his artistic purpose by showing everything in full daylight, as it were. The effect Homer seeks is aesthetic pleasure merely, not psychological realism. In Auerbach’s view, the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac can only achieve its religious purpose by building in psychological depth. Interestingly for this thread, the author accomplishes this purpose by a three day trek of silence! No dialogue, no internal monologue at all!

  2. I don’t get it. I usually think in ridiculously long sentences that bother Mr. Sofa if I speak them aloud. He always wants me to get to the point. Am I the only one who does this? Crud duds.

  3. I would guess that even your long, inner sentences aren’t in written-style prose. They probably start and stop, flip from one thing to another, etc.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.