First sentence: “My friend Mel McGinnis was talking.”
“Mel, for God’s sake,” Terri said. She reached out and took hold of his wrist. “Are you getting drunk? Honey? Are you drunk?”
“Honey, I’m just talking,” Mel said. “All right? I don’t have to be drunk to say what I think. I mean, we’re all just talking, right?” Mel said. He fixed his eyes on her.
“Sweetie, I’m not criticizing,” Terri said.
She picked up her glass.
“I’m not on call today,” Mel said. “Let me remind you of that. I am not on call,” he said.
“Mel, we love you,” Laura said.
Mel looked at Laura. He looked at her as if he could not place her, as if she was not the woman she was.
“Love you too, Laura,” Mel said. “And you, Nick, love you too. You know something?” Mel said. “You guys are our pals,” Mel said.
He picked up his glass.
On the surface, Carver’s story is fairly simple. Four married friends – Mel and Tessa, Nick and Laura – are talking over drinks at Mel’s kitchen table, in Albuquerque. The topic of conversation is love. They don’t all agree on what love is. This is essentially the plot, almost entirely driven by what the characters say to each other, and the stories they tell as the day wanes.
“What We Talk About When We Talk about Love” was first published in The New Yorker. A collection bearing the story’s name was later published in 1981 and cemented Carver’s reputation as a major short story writer.
Thinking it through:
This was assigned reading for my short fiction class, for it’s masterful use of dialogue. So what makes good dialogue? Readers should notice that almost everything about the scene and the mood is revealed through the dialogue. One student in class pointed out how the narrator rarely tells the reader explicitly, “We were all drunk.” How does Carver go about conveying drunkenness? The characters occasionally mention it in conversation (as in the above example). Carver also tweaks the dialogue as the story goes on, altering the phrasing and pace to suggest a less than lucid speaker. Readers likely come to this story with their own ideas of how a drunk person might sound, what they may say. Carver plays upon our assumptions, helping to create a realistic scene in which characters repeat what they say, revisit stories, get interrupted and ask, “Where was I?” and have to start again. In the process, he connects to his readers and their own experiences. While readers may, more often than not, prefer plot-driven stories with exciting twists and turns, we should also ask ourselves, how can dialogue heighten our emotional connection to a story and make it more enjoyable?