Warm Ups: What Hemingway Reveals Through Dialogue

Ernest Hemingway is well known for the depth he was able to convey with his simple prose, so I don’t know why it continues to surprise me every time I read it. In today’s excerpt of A Moveable Feast I was in awe of a passage at the end of the chapter Shakespeare and Company, named for a bookstore he used to frequent in Paris. Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley, are planning their day and travels and discussing their good fortune in finding a bookstore that will lend them books since they’re too poor to buy them. Ernest starts the conversation:

“I’m very hungry,” I said.  “I worked at the cafe on a cafe creme.”

“How did it go, Tatie?”

“I think all right.  I hope so. What do we have for lunch?”

“Little radishes, and good foie de veau with mashed potatoes and an endive salad.  Apple tart.”

“And we’re going to have all the books in the world to read and when we go on trips we can take them.”

“Would that be honest?”

“Sure.”

“Does she have Henry James too?”

“Sure.”

“My,” she said. “We’re lucky that you found the place.”

“We’re always lucky,” I said and like a fool I did not knock on wood. There was wood everywhere in that apartment to knock on too.”  (33-34)

In less than one hundred words Hemingway’s able to convey a loving relationship, a good wife, and the simplicity of youth and poverty, before dropping the foreshadowing bomb. My set up and short commentary took up more space and said far less than this snippet of a conversation between a husband and a wife.

Dialogue done well is a powerful tool for conveying backstory, relationships, and suspense. Hemingway is, of course, a master of this, but what other authors do you know who are able to do this? Find a section in your manuscript where you can try to employ it.

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