March 10, 2018 by bradcharlesbeals
For the bi-lingual, speaking in the second language can be tiring.
There’s a scene in John LeCarre’s novel The Russia House where the characters, all Russian, spend the day speaking English for the sake of their British guests. Eventually they get tired (and a little drunk) and can’t help but slip back into their native tongue.
For readers of fiction, our native tongue is narrative prose, and spending long stretches in dialogue can feel a bit like speaking in a second language. It can be tiring, not because there’s something inadequate in dialogue, but for just the opposite reason: when we weigh it word for word, dialogue is heavier in tension and dramatic freight than prose. And the work of that reading can – in a good way, like exercise – be tiring.
But the writer of fiction has a tool that can offer the reader, from time to time, a respite, a breather: the indirect quotation.
Quoting characters indirectly provides a kind of rest in which the natural tension that is a part of all dialogue gets relaxed. The reader returns to comfy prose (for a sentence or two, for a paragraph) then, rested up, can get back to the work of following characters in conversation.
Here’s a chunk from a long discussion on life and horses (the indirect quote is italicized)…
“You interested in just buying her?” asked the boy.
“Depends on how bad you want to sell,” said the farrier. “We can talk later.”
They stood in the open doorway of the barn and watched the easy movement of people on the gravel street, and they spoke of sons and fathers and grandfathers, and the differences between the generations. The farrier said that the Dying made distinctions between them the way drought will mark the growth rings in trees, that those who first entered the new age seemed always to be looking back, pulling from the past the means of survival and of reworking small societies from big. The boy said that these things might be true, but that he gave the time before the Dying no thought, and that he only ever saw one direction to face.”
This indirect quote would have taken a page or two to develop as dialogue. Natural human conversation tends to grope and stumble and re-state, but I could get right to the meaning by quoting it indirectly. Afterward, the dialogue continues in direct quotation, but for this hundred words or so the tension is relaxed, and the reader is presented an entire discussion in two sentences.
Managing tension – knowing when to build, when to pause, when to relax, when to release – is key to any kind of dramatic writing, and the indirect quote is a great tool for that kind of work (an under-used one, too).
But giving the reader a point of rest in a lengthy dialogue is only one use of the indirect quote. I’ll look at a couple of others next week.