How We Were: Relationship and Dialogue

by | May 7, 2021 | Weekly Prompt

Dialogue month continues with a close look at another modern classic short story: “In The Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” by Amy Hempel

Hempel’s prose is the tersest of the terse. Every sentence stings like a papercut, and the lines of dialogue are no exception. This makes her stories especially instructive because everything is placed with such intention, as if words were in rare supply and Hempel was short on cash.

Still, Hempel’s writing leaves a lot of room for the reader. Nothing is tied up with a bow. So it’s worth discussing a bit more explicitly what we can learn from her dialogue, and use those lessons as inspirations for dialogue prompts. 

Patterns and Breaking Patterns

We learn early in the story that the narrator is visiting her best friend as she dies of cancer. The narrator’s job is instructed to keep her mind off it: “‘Tell me things I won’t mind forgetting,’ she said. ‘Make it useless stuff or skip it.’”

The narrator proceeds to tell her useless stuff throughout the story. Fun facts. Some not so fun. This establishes a pattern of the dialogue. Nonsequiturs abound. 

Then, from time to time, the patterns breaks. The friend acknowledges what’s happening to her: “’You know,’ she said, ‘I feel like hell. I’m about to stop having fun.’” Set against all the useless trivia, which the narrator immediately returns to, these meaningful, emotionally forthright lines of dialogue crackle and lurch. And even though we know the friend asked the narrator to supply endless diversion, we begin to suspect that she asked that favor for the narrator’s sake. It’s the narrator, who took a little too long to visit her best friend in the hospital, who can’t handle the hard stuff, who prefers to return to the surface. 

Intimacy and Identification

In a similar way that the dialogue in “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere” reveals who the narrator is, the dialogue in “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” reveals, even more so than individual character, the nature of the friendship between the two principles. The narrator and her best friend use shorthand with each other. They don’t have to say everything, not because they are afraid of intimacy but because they already share it. This question of intimacy is made explicit in a conversation with the best friend’s nurse:

She introduces me to a nurse as the Best Friend. The impersonal article is more intimate. It tells me that they are intimate, the nurse and my friend. 

“I was telling her we used to drink Canada Dry ginger ale and pretend we were in Canada.” 

“That’s how dumb we were,” I say.

There are lots of layers in these few lines. First, instead of calling the narrator “my best friend,” she calls her “the best friend” to the nurse, and to the narrator, this implies a closeness with the nurse rather than with her. When you refer to someone the Best Friend, it probably means you’ve told a bunch of stories about them. So we wonder, how does it feel to the narrator to learn that she’s featured in all these stories told to the nurse? 

The narrator’s contribution–That’s how dumb we were–strikes me, in context, as a tad possessive, as if she’s staking claim to their intertwined past in contrast to the nurse, who has known her only recently. To self-deprecate in the first person plural–not how dumb I was, but how dumb we were–is kind of the ultimate identification with someone else. They are a unit, a pair, with a shared callow youth. 


Two lessons in dialogue in this story, two possible directions for your own experiment with dialogue,

First option: Patterns and Breaking Patterns

Write dialogue in which you establish a pattern of some kind in the way the characters speak to each other. Then you disrupt the pattern intentionally to highlight emotion or build tension or signal a turning point. 

What kind of pattern might you make and then break? It could be content, like the litany of useless facts in Hempel’s story. Or it could be a pattern in tone. Two people who normally speak formally to one another let their guard down. Humor slips in. Or it could be in how direct or not the characters speak. It could be a change in the emotional register. A flurry of whispers pierce by a moment of shouting.

Second option: Intimacy and Identity

This is really all about characterizing a relationship rather than an individual. With any kind of pivotal platonic, familial, or romantic relationship depicted in a story, the way the characters speak to each other tells you everything about the dynamic between them. I mean, it pretty much IS the dynamic, or at least 80% of it. It’s why couples end up fighting about the way the other one is fighting–tone of voice, sarcasm, all that. 

Write a dialogue in which the characters speak to each other in a distinct way. Use English, but give them a secret language of sorts, fully decipherable only to them (and probably the reader). How do they lay claim to each other with their words? Or how do they pull apart and close themselves off through verbal cues?

This is a crucial lesson in dialogue because not only should different characters have different ways of speaking, different voices, but a single character should differentiate their speech based on whom they’re talking to. We all do this. Think about how you speak to your great aunt versus your friends. Create that kind of delineation in dialogue you’re writing.

Speaking of starting dialogues, and relationships, don’t forget to post in the Write Away Studio and start a dialogue about your draft. It’s a perfect way to build relationships with other writers.