Here from Cormac McCarthey’s THE ROAD is a dialogue that looks a lot like many we have been receiving to edit lately:
…You have to talk to me.
You wanted to know what the bad guys looked like. Now you know. It may happen again. My job is to take care of you. I was appointed to do that by God. Anyone who touches you. Do you understand?
He sat there cowled in the blanket. After awhile he looked up. Are we still the good guys? he said.
Yes. We’re still the good guys.
And we always will be?
Yes. We always will be.
We are not talking about McCarthy’s choice not to use punctuation. Rather, this snippet is familiar because by itself, it contains no context. The reader has no idea where these people are, who they are, and even, who is talking. This is like the dialogue balloons from a comic strip except that they don’t attach to an actual drawing. They just hang out there. We are constantly urging clients to set the scene, let the reader know where a conversation is taking place and to describe the people who are talking as they talk. Otherwise, readers are just lost.
The ROAD is the story of a stripped down, post-apocalyptic world. So McCarthy is keeping his language spare on purpose. But he does give the reader all necessary information. He establishes this pair is a father and son from the first line of the book. The reader also knows exactly where these two characters are when this conversation takes place and what time of day it is, because McCarthy has set the scene. Here is what precedes the dialogue above:
That night they camped in a ravine and built a fire against a small stone bluff and ate their last tin of food. He’d put it by because it was the boy’s favorite, pork and beans. They watched it bubble slowly in the coals and he retrieved the tin with the pliers and they ate in silence. He rinsed the empty tin with water and gave it to the child to drink and that was that. I should have been more careful, he said.
The boy didn’t answer
You have to talk to me…