Monday Motivation: Dialogue and the human condition

 In Monday Motivation

What do I love about Elmore Leonard’s dialogue? It’s terse, it’s droll, it’s economical. It punches above its weight.

Take this sentence speech from Bandit:

Jack said, “I’ve been to Carville. When I worked for the Rives we’d go up there once or twice a year, tune the organ. One of ‘em, Uncle Brother, would be on the console hitting notes. I’m up in the loft by the pipes, way up on a shaky ladder making the adjustments on the sleeve. I was the one with the ear.”

You could patent a speech like that. Take a good look at it.  Not an unnecessary word. Contractions galore. It has the feel of authentic dialogue. It breaks the rules. It mixes tenses, for instance. It kicks off in the past, when Jack worked for the Rives. Then it slides elegantly into the present: “I’m up in the loft by the pipes…”

It leaves out words. A pedant, like me, might have been tempted to write: “… we’d go up there once or twice a year to tune the organ.”  But it’s better as it is, more natural, more economical, with a rhythm that a jazz pianist might recognize. The beat’s just a little off, and deliberately so.

And it ends with the laconic throwaway line: “I was the one with the ear.”

Now take a little dialogue from Purity, Jonathan Franzen’s latest magnum opus. Purity, otherwise known as Pip, is the novel’s heroine, a young, plain-speaking American woman who values irony above almost anything else. She finds herself in the company of a number of beautiful and impossibly intelligent young women who lack all sense of irony. Here she’s decided to be absolutely honest with one of their number, a certain Willow.

“I hate that you’re way prettier than I am,” (Pip) said. “I hate that there were always these alpha girls and you’re one of them and I’m not. I hate that you went to Stanford. I hate that you don’t have to worry about money. I hate that you’ll never really get how privileged you are…. I hate that you don’t have to be snarky. I hate that you can’t imagine what it’s like to be poor and owe money, and have a depressive single parent, and be so angry and weird that you can’t even have a boyfriend – oh, never mind.” Pip shook her head with disgust. “This is obviously all just my own self-pity.”

Now, this is very different from Leonard’s. It’s grammatical, for one thing.  But what marks it (and marks much of Franzen’s writing) is its honesty and its accuracy. Elmore Leonard’s confections are entertainments; Jonathan Franzen’s books are observations of the human condition. They rely for their power on the accuracy of their details. This little diatribe of Pip’s is a model of its kind. It’s because his readers share at least some of the multiple resentments expressed here by his protagonist, that they so enjoy his work.

But there are two things that unite these two passages. The first is is their rhythm – the recognizable cadence of the spoken word. Both Franzen and Leonard have “the ear” for dialogue. They listen to others speaking, and they recreate the rise and the fall of real speech.

The other thing they share is humour – the very human comedy that derives from accurate observation. I just loved Elmore’s “ear” – and that line of Franzen’s: “I hate that you don’t have to be snarky.” Think about it. It’s very wise. And it’s very funny.

Wish I were as wise, and as funny.

Happy writing,


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