Tuesday, December 27, 2011

An ear for authentic dialogue

Writing good dialogue is tough. Getting the dialogue of children to ring true adds an even higher degree of difficulty. A lot of decent writers just don’t have the ear to pull it off. Their young characters are either petulant, whining brats or super-genius wunderkinds that talk just like the adults. It’s rare that someone truly nails the child’s voice in an authentic, powerful way. Cormack McCarthy does exactly that in his post-apocalyptic novel The Road.

The following passage highlights one such interaction between the two main characters, a man and his young son. Earlier in the day they had broken into a locked cellar in search of food, and were horrified to discover a pitiful collection of fellow human beings who were being held captive as a source of food. Now, after having been chased away by that pathetic assembly, the two of them are settling down for the night:

Can we have a fire? The boy said.
We don’t have a lighter.
The boy looked away.
I’m sorry. I dropped it. I didn’t want to tell you.
That’s okay.
I’ll find us some flint. I’ve been looking. And we’ve still got the little bottle of gasoline.
Are you very cold?
I’m okay.
The boy lay with his head in the man’s lap. After a while he said: They’re going to kill those people, arent they?
Why do they have to do that?
I don’t know.
Are they going to eat them?
I don’t know.
They’re going to eat them, aren’t they?
And that’s why we couldn’t help them.


They sat by the side of the road and ate the last of the apples.
What is it? The man said.
We’ll find something to eat. We always do.
The boy didn’t answer. The man watched him.
That’s not it, is it?
It’s okay.
Tell me.
The boy looked away down the road.
I want you to tell me. It’s okay.
He shook his head.
Look at me, the man said.
He turned and looked. He looked like he’d been crying.
Just tell me.
We wouldn’t ever eat anybody, would we?
No. Of course not.
Even if we were starving?
We’re starving now.
You said we werent.
I said we werent dying. I didn’t say we werent starving.
But we wouldnt.
No. We wouldnt.
No matter what.
No. No matter what.
Because we’re the good guys.
And we’re carrying the fire.
And we’re carrying the fire. Yes.
If you ask me, this is an absolutely amazing passage. Some will look down their nose at McCarthy’s stubborn avoidance of quotation marks. Others will fault him for his apostrophe-less contractions. But neither of those eccentricities is material in my view. The biggest charge that will be leveled against this passage is that it flaunts the modern adage that every single word of dialogue has to move the story forward. Dogmatic, by-the-book critics will argue that McCarthy’s action gets stalled in the repetitive back and forth between father and child. But that’s precisely why it works. The plot may not be barreling forward, but the emotional story is growing more and more complex.

Here’s what makes this so good: The dialogue of both characters is incredibly telling in what is not said. The boy’s sparse words and long pauses put his cognitive processes on full view for the reader. We can see the wheels turning inside his head. And anyone with little kids will see the authenticity in this kind of multi-layered communication. The father’s simple explanations and one-word answers reveal his own compassion for the boy, and his empathy for someone trying to figure out why the world is the way it is.

The boy puts up a stoic front, as most kids would in his situation, but he can’t hide his fears from a caring, probing father. Meanwhile, the father stonewalls some of his son’s direct questions. He is set on protecting his child from the hellish realities of life on the road, yet quickly perceives when it’s time to level with the boy. They were going to eat those people. That knowledge not only explains why they had to abandon them, but it reinforces the reasons that father and son have to stick together. It illustrates exactly what they’re up against.

Finally, the familiar refrain of “carrying the fire” leaves us with the impression that this is only one of many such discussions they’ve had since the world went to hell. It is their private rallying cry. It’s their only real reason for moving forward. It’s the only reason for refusing to give up, as their wife and mother had done.

I think the whole thing is just brilliant. Buy the book.

What do you think? Who else really hits the mark when writing children?


  1. I haven't read The Road, only seen the movie. I usually don't like to watch movies based on books I have read and vice versa, but perhaps I will make an exception here.

    As for dialogue with children, one author comes screaming to mind: Mark Twain. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is probably as famous for the dialogue between Huck and Jim as the themes it discusses.

  2. Not sure about dialog by children... but no one does dialog better than Elmore Leonard. And no one is worse than David Baldacci.

  3. Huck Finn is high on my "Books-from-childhood-to-be-reread" list. Can't say I appreciated it as much as I could have the first time around.

    As for Leonard, I've never read him, but I'm vaguely familiar with his rules on writing, the most important of which would seem to back you up, Anon:

    "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it"