I'm finished writing my annotation to Larry's Party, Carol Shield's award-winning novel. (hurrah!) Thought I'd share what I learned from her about writing dialogue.
In the final chapter, “Larry’s Party,” after which the book is named, the author captures the essence of a dinner party - conversation. In this passage which includes nine different characters, Shields writes ten consecutive pages (pp. 306-315) of pure unattributed dialogue while ensuring that the reader always intuitively knows who is speaking. Like a maze which can only be understood from above, Shields’ feat can only be comprehended from a distance.
Sheilds starts slowly, like a juggler with just three balls in the air, adding character after character until all nine are present. The party begins with Larry and his girlfriend, Charlotte, at Larry’s house in Chicago where the dinner party takes place. The doorbell rings and Charlotte heads to the kitchen to check on the lamb leaving Larry to answer the door. Shields re-introduces Larry’s second wife, Beth, a character we already know. As each guest or group enters, Shields uses an extra line of space to symbolize the opening of the door.
Patterns of speech serve as tags. Larry, who’s speech is sparse and direct, makes most of the introductions. “Samuel Alvero, this is Beth Prior.” (p. 306). “Let me introduce Garth and Marcia McCord.” (p. 306) “This is Dorrie Shaw-Weller.” (p. 308) “And please meet a friend of mine, Charlotte Angus.” (p. 308). “And this is Beth Prior.” (P. 308).
Larry, Charlotte, and Beth are joined by Samuel Alvero, a Spanish horticulturist who is working with Larry on a hedge maze. (Larry designs mazes for a living). Conveniently for the dialogue, English is Alvero’s second language which gives the reader label with which to track the dialogue. Phrases such as, “I am enchanted to meet you,” (p. 306) followed relatively quickly by “This is enchanting,” (p. 308) show his limited vocabulary. At times he cannot follow the conversation.
When Marcia McCord says, “I love New York, but these days I love it tragically.” Samuel replies, “Love it how?” showing that he had difficulty understanding the conversation. Later, as Samuel slowly realizes that he’s meeting two women who are Larry’s “wives,” his confusion is a clue.
Larry’s girlfriend, Charlotte, speaks effusively, nervously, almost babbling at times. Not waiting for Larry to introduce her, she introduces herself to Samuel and Beth and then blathers on for several lines:
I’m Charlotte Angus. Sorry, I was busy in the kitchen when you - you must be Beth. Well, well! It’s so good to see you, so wonderful you could come, I mean. And you’re Samuel. Larry’s been telling me about you, what a marvel you’ve been these last busy weeks, working day and night getting ready for the opening. (p. 306)
She repeatedly passes the dialogue torch to Larry with, “Is that the doorbell again, Larry?” (p. 306) and similar phrases. Charlotte is also frequently interrupted
At times the subject of a character’s speech serves as the clue. Larry’s ex-wife Beth is pregnant and this information helps the reader track when she is speaking. Referring to the baby, Beth says, “He’s got his own swimming pool in there.” (p. 308). When Larry offers the guests champagne, Beth replies, “. . . Champagne and fetus don’t mix. . . .” (p. 309)
Marcia McCord refers frequently to her therapist and she and her husband Garth sometimes bicker with each other. Samuel talks of his deceased wife. Charlotte speaks of her late husband, Derek.
Samuel Alvero sometimes speaks in Spanish or refer to his homeland, “Your honeymoon? Ah, in Spain we say luna da miel. Direct Translation. I always feel happy when I find direct translation. . . .”
The information that a character already knows and brings to the table can also serve as a clue. When Larry speaks of his father making tea, Dorrie replies, “. . . I don’t remember your dad lifting a finger in the kitchen.” (p. 311). It’s not Larry’s sister Midge because Dorrie says, “your dad,” as opposed to “our dad,” and it’s not Beth because Larry’s dad was not alive during most of their marriage. Dorrie was the closest to his parents. None of the other characters except Dorrie would have that information.
Through invisible tags and tics: timing, speech patterns and the subject of each speaker’s dialogue, Shields’ skill renders speech tags unnecessary. Her technique makes the reader feel as if she is one of the guests, eating the lamb and the lima beans with the others.