Writing dialogue can be a challenge for many writers, who commonly strive to imitate the type of speech and conversations they hear around them. However, fictional speech, according to Douglas Glover, is “highly organized” and “not like dialogue in real life.” Dialogue should instead contain “motivation and drama and conflict.” How can a writer fit all those elements into their dialogue? The answer, perhaps counter-intuitively, may be to avoid dialogue all together. In Alice Munro’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” manipulates dialogue through summary and indirect quotation to heighten dramatic effect and emphasize changes in Fiona, one of the story’s two main characters. Writers can look to this short story to add tension and conflict to their dialogue, and avoid the pitfalls of boring speech.
A writer’s initial impulse might be to create dialogue that seems as true to life as possible; however, such speech “wanders, loops, stop, digresses, and picks up subjects from a hundred other conversation.” Glover recommends that writers not indulge in “fully-realized dialogue scenes that are not on the direct conflict line,” which would include a lot of the speech that occurs most frequently in real life. Sticking to only conversations that intensify a story’s conflicts help a writer avoid the functional exchanges that make up so much of daily speech. Glover espouses summary as a technique to avoid these boring conversations, as well as “free indirect discourse and reported dialogue.”
The first time Alice Munro summarizes dialogue in “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” underscores Fiona’s swift slide into dementia. This summarization marks the turning point at which Grant knows Fiona can no longer live at home and the serious extent of her illness. Fiona wanders away while she and Grant are grocery shopping, and is eventually picked up by a police officer. At first she makes jokes about the incident, but her true condition is revealed in the following construction: “He laughed. But then she made the mistake of asking if he’d seen Boris and Natasha.” In the next paragraph, Boris and Natasha are revealed to be the pair’s long-dead dogs.
Munro could have written this as direct dialogue, attributed to Fiona. The line just previous to it is in fact Fiona’s direct dialogue, so it would have been natural to continue the flow of the conversation. Instead, leaving the dialogue technically unspoken actually increases the dramatic tension. Fiona’s remarks about the dogs come as a surprise to both the officer and the reader, since Fiona had seemed lucid in the previous dialogue, and this surprise is made more dramatic using Munro’s summarization technique.
For a writer, it may be instructional to rewrite this scene as many of us would have written it, as follows:
“Have you seen Boris and Natasha?” she asked.
Notice the extent to which the drama has been diffused. Without the summarization, Fiona’s comment is no longer a “mistake”; foreshadowing and significance is lost. Writers can take a cue from Munro and approach their most dramatic and revealing dialogue in this manner. Though it may seem counterintuitive to many writers, taking the words out of a character’s mouth, so to speak, can allow you to restructure dialogue for its most dramatic impact.
Summarizing this exchange of dialogue also allows Munro to highlight the words that are most directly on the conflict line, if one considers the story’s conflict to be Fiona’s battle with senility and Grant’s struggle to adjust to her decline. Munro avoids the officer and Fiona greeting each other, the series of questions the officer must ask and Fiona’s subsequent answers and uses the summarization to keep the most important, conflict-related dialogue in the foreground.
Munro utilizes this technique a second time later in the story, when Grant is recalling Fiona’s earlier remarks about the possibility of traveling to Iceland, the land from which her ancestors hail. At the end of Grant’s recollections, Fiona’s dialogue is again summarized as opposed to directly quoted. The reliability of Grant’s memory does not seem to be the reason for this, as earlier in the section, he is able to recall obscure terminology Fiona used, such as “old Njal and “old Snorri.” These terms are directly quoted. But Fiona’s later sentiments are not quoted. Munro writes “Also—she said—there ought to be one place you thought about and knew about and maybe longed for—but never did get to see.” Munro definitely wants the reader to know these words were spoken, thus the “she said” set off with dashes, but doesn’t use quotation marks, the most obvious signal. Commas would serve the same purpose, but would not slow the reader down as much as the dashes do, thus giving writers a way to use punctuation to serve as dramatic pauses within summarized dialogue.
This summarization details the tension inherent in never getting what one “thought about and knew about and maybe longed for.” Grant will soon find himself in this position, as he is unable to have the old Fiona any longer. Though Fiona is referring to Iceland, that she claims there “ought to be” a desired destination one never sees, is appropriate, since for Grant, she herself will assume that role. Writers can use this as a model for adding more drama to their dialogue. Emphasizing the tension naturally in these sentiments makes the dialogue work overtime and keeps the speech on the main conflict line.
Later in the story, Fiona’s dialogue is again summarized instead of quoted directly. At this point in the plot, Fiona is mourning the departure of her companion Aubrey. Munro writes: “She was still polite—she apologized for her tears, and never argued with a suggestion or refused to answer a question. But she wept.” Again, Munro could have shown this with dialogue, in which Fiona in fact answered questions and failed to argue.
Here writers can see a different effect. Here, drama that may have been maudlin if rendered as spoken dialogue is made more subtle. Writers leery of overly emotional scenes can use this technique to avoid overblown “movie of the week” dialogue without defusing the drama altogether. Munro avoids a fully realized teary scene, which may have seemed overplayed. Writers who are intimidated by what are potentially their stories’ most dramatic scenes—confrontations in particular—may find this technique helpful. Try writing the dialogue in summary, and then see if particular snatches can be revised into direct quotes, or if the whole passage works better as a summary, as does Munro’s.
Dialogue attributed to the supervisor of the nursing home in which the rules of the home are explained to Grant is similarly summarized, then moves abruptly into direct dialogue. Munro summarizes how the supervisor explains that Grant won’t be permitted to visit Fiona for thirty days as to avoid the temptation to bring her home. The direct dialogue begins: “Whereas we find,” the supervisor said, “we find that if they’re left on their own they usually end up happy as clams.” This dialogue anticipates the change Fiona will undergo, from nervous and tearful new resident to one who regards the nursing home as her true home. It’s right on the conflict line, and is emphasized appropriately as the only part of the exchange actually spoken. This technique also prevents a potentially uninteresting discussion of the facility’s rules.
Late in the story, Munro constructs a scene in which all of Grant’s dialogue is indirect, without quotation mark, and nearly all of Kristy, the nurse’s dialogue is directly quoted, in this manner:
“Her weight is going down even with the supplement. We’re doing all we can for her.”
Grant said that he realized they were.
Alternating between direct and indirect dialogue helps keep the most important and dramatic information (what Kristy says) highlighted. All the direct dialogue emphasizes conflict; Grant’s more mundane responses are not given the attention-getting quotation marks.
Dialogue can be daunting to write, and strong dialogue is a challenge for many writers. In Munro’s work, we can see how summarizing dialogue skillfully can be used instead on some of the most dramatic and meaningful dialogue, keeping the focus on the story’s main conflict line. On the other hand, the technique can also be used successfully to render potentially over-dramatic scenes with more subtlety.
Glover, Douglas. “The Drama of Grammar.” In Attack of the Copula Spiders (Ontario,
Biblioasis, 2010), 63–82.
Munro, Alice. “The Bear Came Over the Mountain.” In Hateship, Friendship, Courtship,
Loveship, Marriage (New York, Random House, 2001), 275–322.
Jennifer Fenn writes and teaches in Downingtown, PA. Fenn is also an avid runner and an MFA candidate at Rosemont College. Her fiction has appeared online in Fiddleblack and The Writing Disorder; her nonfiction has been published in Education Week, Bitch, Backhome, and Venus Zine.