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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:

He laughed.
“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.


Author’s Note
FennBioPic.jpgJen­nifer 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.

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