I missed out.
I never read Hemingway when I was young. It took until my 20s, but I fixed it. And I'm glad I did...
...because there's so much to learn from his writing craft.
In Hemingway's Hills Like White Elephants, you quickly become acquainted with his powerful use of subtext and rapid characterization.
In For Whom the Bell Tolls, you can watch the writer peel away the layers of his characters and his world.
I picked up 7 powerful lessons on writing more immersive dialogue from Hemingway's 20th Century masterpieces.
Let me show you what I’m talking about:
Warning: this contains spoilers for Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and Hills Like White Elephants.
I started reading For Whom the Bell Tolls with some friends, and I was struck - almost immediately - by one of the aspects of Hemingway’s writing that you never hear about: his dialogue.
People always talk about Hemingway’s short, simple, and forceful language. His new way dominated North American literature for a long time to follow (and even still, some might argue).
Away with the flowery adjectives. Break through the tangled walls of adverbs. Be active.
At least, that’s what you always hear about. There’s even a tool built specifically to analyze your writing as if it was Hemingway’s own eye.
But dialogue is something the Hemingway App can’t catch, and something I want to explore in this piece:
Hemingway had a way with conversations, something about them that made them sound both:
His dialogue was more immersive than most other writers of the time (and even to this day) because he knew what was important to include... and what to leave out.
The keyword here is “interesting.” Hemingway wasn’t doubling up on every piece of dialogue.
Instead, he chose special moments or characteristics to emphasize through repeated snippets of dialogue. This was a powerful way to create unique character voices.
Sometimes, they repeat themselves:
“Qué cosa mas rara,” the gypsy said. “All the time he was with us he talked of such a possibility. I don’t know how many times I have promised him to perform such an act. What a rare thing,” he said again and shook his head.
“He was a very rare man,” Primitivo said. “Very singular.”
Other times, they will repeat each other:
“You are not very cheerful today.”
“No,” Karkov had said, “I have just come back from Valencia where I have seen many people. No one comes back very cheerful from Valencia.”
This does two things:
People read to explore another life, not because they want to sound out “well-constructed sentences” on a page. Fiction is about the illusion that reveals the truth.
By using this form of repetition, Hemingway creates a very realistic-sounding dialogue between characters. It also gives him an opportunity to use his next trick...
In the beginning of For Whom the Bell Tolls, our protagonist Robert Jordan finds himself amidst Pablo’s band of guerrillas. When we first meet him, Pablo is full of bluster and bravado.
“Am I a leader for nothing?” Pablo asked.
He is a man of pride, a man who once rose up against the fascists and lead a glorious revolution in his small town. But soon, we learn that he is not the man he once was.
Pablo’s will to fight has been diminished. He is overcome with the sense of loss - of futility - and, most of all, he is afraid of death. Pablo’s woman, Pilar, has taken over Pablo’s band. She even confronts him on his failings, on his “unmanning.”
So I said, ‘You understand now that I command?’
‘Yes, Pilar. Yes,’ he said. Later in the night I hear him awake and he is crying. He is crying in a short and ugly manner as a man cries when it is as though there is an animal inside that is shaking him.
Here, we start to get a strong sense of Pablo’s character. We start to see that there are layers to this man, there are layers to the whole war.
By the end of the book, and by the end of Pablo’s character arc, when Pablo regains his former courage (or maybe he finds a new kind of fatalistic courage), Hemingway calls back to the old phrase of leadership:
“So I rode for the others to make it possible for it to be successful. I have brought the best that I could get. I have left them at the top so I could speak to you, first. They think I am the leader.”
“Thou art,” Pilar said. “If thee wishes.”
Poetic repetition (and even ironic repetition) creates a strong release of emotion in most readers.
At least, it did for me. Hemingway uses this tactic plenty of times throughout his stories, and I think this is what separates good dialogue… from masterpiece dialogue.
It’s not easy to do. If you want to try this yourself, there are a couple of ways to go about it:
These climaxes don’t need to be “end of the story” climaxes, either. They can be scene climaxes or even conversational climaxes.
Here’s an easy one. It works on foreign languages or even dialects of your language.
Don’t be afraid to throw in their colloquialisms (or invent your own, if you’re working within your own constructed language):
“‘Qué va, God and the Virgen,’ I said to him. ‘Is that any way to talk?’
“‘I am afraid to die, Pilar,’ he said. ‘Tengo miedo de morir. Dost thou understand?’
Hemingway also attempts to preserve the order and the intention of speech…
“I think thou hast much picardia. That thou art smarter than I am. I have confidence in thee.”
Thou and thee are literal translations of the informal tense in Spanish. Even though these are considered archaic in English, Hemingway uses them to give you the constant feeling that his characters are all speaking in Spanish… despite the text itself being in English.
From For Whom the Bell Tolls:
“The gypsy said I should have—” he began.
“No,” the woman interrupted. “He is mistaken.”
“If it is necessary that I—” Robert Jordan said quietly but with difficulty.
“Thee would have done it, I believe,” the woman said. “Nay, it is not necessary. I was watching thee. But thy judgment was good.”
“But if it is needful—”
“No,” the woman said. “I tell you it is not needful. The mind of the gypsy is corrupt.”
Interruptions do a few things:
Most great authors think of Dialogue not as a way to simply convey information… but as a form of combat between characters. One person almost always has the upper hand in a conversation (even if that power changes hands quickly), and interruptions allow you to show who is in control.
Everyday conversation is filled with repetition…
...sometimes, that’s not a great thing. I have a friend who has told me the same story about his old hiking backpack at least seven times.
Hemingway says: “Good dialogue is not real speech-it's the illusion of real speech.”
This means that when we want to write good, immersive dialogue, we sometimes need to deviate from true speech. Here's a quick passage from A Farewell to Arms:
He told them.
He told them.
“Why are you not with your regiment?”
He told them.
“Do you know that an officer should be with his troops?”
There are numerous times where Hemingway will insert a “She told them,” or a “He said it,” in lieu of the full explanation.
Don’t be afraid to fast forward through the boring parts of your conversations.
Hemingway will often use dialogue tags in the middle of speech to show the character pauses for thought. Here’s an example from Hills Like White Elephants:
“The beer’s nice and cool,” the man said.
“It’s lovely,” the girl said.
“It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,” the man said. “It’s not really an operation at all.”
The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on.
“I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig. It’s really not anything. It’s just to let the air in.”
The girl did not say anything.
This miniature pause changes the emotion of the dialogue. It shows the character thinking, which can imply a kind of tension - either internal, or between the two characters.
In this case, the man was trying to find a different angle to convince the girl of an abortion, something she clearly wasn’t comfortable with.
Notice how you can get all of the emotion, without the author ever explicitly stating what they’re thinking, or how they feel?
You can use the same words to mean different things. This ambiguity adds layers to otherwise simple dialogue.
It creates a depth, with varying degrees of uncertainty - which creates a kind of tension that draws the reader’s attention.
Here’s a passage from For Whom the Bell Tolls…
“How many people have you ever loved?”
“Not even me?”
“How many others really?”
“How many have you—how do you say it?—stayed with?”
“You’re lying to me.”
Maria’s (the first speaker's) feelings are obvious by her questions, but Robert’s feelings...
Does he actually love her? How much? Is he lying? Are these lies for good, or for ill?
But there are other ways he uses this. Sometimes, he uses a simple No, without any inflection, to cause a jolt of emotion in the reader.
Sometimes, he mixes the no’s and the yes’s to confuse the reader, and entrench them in the drama, to immerse them and make them feel the illusion more fully.
“Very good,” Primitivo approved.
“That should hold her for a while.”
“But Pilar,” Fernando said. “Surely you could not expect one of Don Roberto’s education to do such vile things.”
“No,” Pilar agreed.
“All of that is of the utmost repugnance.”
“Yes,” Pilar agreed.
“You would not expect him actually to perform those degrading acts?”
“No,” Pilar said. “Go to bed, will you?”
Personally, I suggest reading Hills Like White Elephants right away. It's a great story, and the drama is told almost exclusively in dialogue that is drenched in subtext.
As you read Hemingway - or any author's dialogue - try to note the tricks they use to shortcut you past the boring parts of speech, and keep you hooked on the tension.
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Writing Exercise: Take a quick scene between two of your characters. Try to find a way to insert at least two of these tricks to polish your dialogue, and make it more immersive.
Comment below about your success. Heck, post a passage from your writing, I’d love to see your responses.