What Kurt Vonnegut taught me about writing dialogue

Kurt Vonnegut and writing dialogue.

When I first started reading the works of Kurt Vonnegut, his style was a revelation to me. His novels tackle complex ideas, but the prose is simple and clear, the stories often very short. For example, Slaughterhouse-5 is a stark contrast to the complexity of Catch-22, despite similar themes, but is just as effective (hence both are included in my recommended reading list). One thing stood out for me more than anything in the way Vonnegut wrote, a very simple dialogue technique. The response: “Um.”

Writing dialogue that creates a scene

When writing, it’s easy to bog down descriptions with too much detail, especially when characters are talking. There’s a temptation to describe exactly what is happening as each sentence is said, especially when there is a back-and-forth. Maybe it’s the white space that surrounds short spoken sentences, but it often doesn’t feel like enough to just have a character say something and move on.

For me, I always find a disgusting amount of smiling and nodding going on when my characters chat to one another, something I have to ruthlessly remove in redrafts. They seem to snarl a lot too, or murmur, anything to make the description around the dialogue more dynamic. But it has the opposite effect. It takes away from what is being said, it’s a distraction (and gets very repetitive). Kurt Vonnegut did more than simplify the scenes around the dialogue, though. His dialogue doesn’t even include verbs for the most part, and the dialogue itself could be incredibly simple too.

What I learnt from Vonnegut is that speech doesn’t have to be detailed, it doesn’t have to be described and it doesn’t have to be particularly profound to have an impact. Sometimes all it has to do is be there. You can create a whole picture with one word. Consider this extract from the novel Cat’s Cradle:

“Did you ever talk to Dr. Hoenikker?” I asked Miss Faust.

“Oh, certainly. I talked to him a lot.”

“Do any conversations stick in your mind?”

“There was one where he bet I couldn’t tell him anything that was absolutely true. So I said to him, ‘God is love.'”

“And what did he say?”

“He said, ‘What is God? What is love?”

“Um.”

“But God really is love, you know,” said Miss Faust, “no matter what Dr. Hoenikker said.”

The response “Um.” embodies all sorts of awkwardness, a character who doesn’t entirely know how to respond in the face of an increasingly complicated conversation. We don’t need action to tell us he might be fidgeting or have a blank look on his face. The character doesn’t need to say exactly how he feels. That one word, precisely because it is devoid of description, builds a better picture than a dozen could. It’s perfectly realised (and amusing).

There are a few other examples of the “Um.” in Cat’s Cradle, and it’s a principle dotted throughout Vonnegut’s writing. Not always with an “Um.”, but a simple single word response that doesn’t really say anything in itself, but demonstrates exactly how the character feels about what is being said. “Nope.” or “I see.”, nothing more. With these throwaway retorts, reading Kurt Vonnegut taught me the principle of ‘show, don’t tell’ better than any other writer has.

Here’s another extract to drive the point home, this time from the novel Breakfast of Champions. It creates a perfect image without having to describe it, thanks to the clipped dialogue:

The driver mentioned that the day before was Veteran’s Day.

“Um,” said Trout.

“You a veteran?” said the driver.

“No,” said Trout, “Are you?”

“No,” said the driver.

Neither one of them was a veteran.

And just because this wouldn’t seem complete without an extract from Slaughterhouse-5, here:

‘But you do have a peaceful planet here.’

‘Today we do. On other days we have wars as horrible as any you’ve ever seen or read about. There isn’t anything we can do about them, so we simply don’t look at them. We ignore them. We spend eternity looking at pleasant moments- like today at the zoo. Isn’t this a nice moment?’

‘Yes.’

‘That’s one thing Earthlings might learn to do, if they tried hard enough: Ignore the awful times, and concentrate on the good ones.’

‘Um,’ said Billy Pilgrim.

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