dialogue marriage plot

Dialogue Technique: Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot

In this passage from The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides hooks his readers and introduces his hero, while demonstrating how to write clean, unadorned dialogue that moves. Like all of Eugenides’ novels, The Marriage Plot showcases exemplary craftsmanship and wins fans.

Read the passage and note:

  • Any instances of dialogue where Flynn uses a verb other than “said”
  • How Flynn uses interior dialogue to pace the conversation
  • How action tags moderate the passage’s pace and illuminate dialogue
  • How the dialogue alleviates the need of qualifying how a statement is spoken

From Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot: A Novel

She came out of her bedroom and stumbled in bare feet to the intercom in the hall, slapping the SPEAK button to silence the buzzer.
      “Hello?”
      “What’s the matter? Didn’t you hear the bell?” It was Alton’s voice, as deep and commanding as ever, despite the fact that it was issuing from a tiny speaker.
      “Sorry,” Madeleine said. “I was in the shower.”
      “Likely story. Will you let us in, please?”
      Madeleine didn’t want to. She needed to wash up first.
      “I’m coming down,” she said.
      This time, she held down the SPEAK button too long, cutting off Alton’s response. She pressed it again and said, “Daddy?” but while she was speaking, Alton must have been speaking, too, because when she pressed LISTEN all that came through was static.
      Madeleine took this pause in communications to lean her forehead against the door frame. The wood felt nice and cool. The thought struck her that, if she could keep her face pressed against the soothing wood, she might be able to cure her headache, and if she could keep her forehead pressed against the door frame for the rest of the day, while somehow still being able to leave the apartment, she might make it through breakfast with her parents, march in the commencement procession, get a diploma, and graduate.
      She lifted her face and pressed SPEAK again.
      “Daddy?”
      But it was Phyllida’s voice that answered. “Maddy? What’s the matter? Let us in.”
      “My roommates are still asleep. I’m coming down. Don’t ring the bell anymore.”
      “We want to see your apartment!”
      “Not now. I’m coming down. Don’t ring.”
      She took her hand from the buttons and stood back, glaring at the intercom as if daring it to make a sound. When it didn’t, she started back down the hall. She was halfway to the bathroom when her roommate Abby emerged, blocking the way. She yawned, running a hand through her big hair, and then, noticing Madeleine, smiled knowingly.
      “So,” Abby said, “where did you sneak off to last night?”
      “My parents are here,” Madeleine said. “I have to go to breakfast.”
      “Come on. Tell me.”
      “There’s nothing to tell. I’m late.”
      “How come you’re wearing the same clothes, then?”
      Instead of replying, Madeleine looked down at herself. Ten hours earlier, when she’d borrowed the black Betsey Johnson dress from Olivia, Madeleine had thought it looked good on her. But now the dress felt hot and sticky, the fat leather belt looked like an S&M restraint, and there was a stain near the hem that she didn’t want to identify.

[…]
      Alton was first through the door. “Here she is!” he said avidly. “The college graduate!” In his net-charging way, he surged forward to seize her in a hug. Madeleine stiffened, worried that she smelled of alcohol or, worse, of sex.
      “I don’t know why you wouldn’t let us see your apartment,” Phyllida said, coming up next. “I was looking forward to meeting Abby and Olivia. We’d love to treat them to dinner later.”
      “We’re not staying for dinner,” Alton reminded her.
      “Well, we might. That depends on Maddy’s schedule.”
      “No, that’s not the plan. The plan is to see Maddy for breakfast and then leave after the ceremony.”
      “Your father and his plans,” Phyllida said to Madeleine. “Are you wearing that dress to the ceremony?”
      “I don’t know,” Madeleine said.
      “I can’t get used to these shoulder pads all the young women are wearing. They’re so mannish.”
      “It’s Olivia’s.”
      “You look pretty whacked out, Mad,” Alton said. “Big party last night?”
      “Not really.”
      “Don’t you have anything of your own to wear?” Phyllida said.
      “I’ll have my robe on, Mummy,” Madeleine said, and, to forestall further inspection, headed past them through the foyer. Outside, the sun had lost its battle with the clouds and vanished. The weather looked not much better than it had all weekend. Campus Dance, on Friday night, had been more or less rained out. The Baccalaureate service on Sunday had proceeded under a steady drizzle. Now, on Monday, the rain had stopped, but the temperature felt closer to St. Patrick’s than to Memorial Day.
      As she waited for her parents to join her on the sidewalk, it occurred to Madeleine that she hadn’t had sex, not really. This was some consolation.
      “Your sister sends her regrets,” Phyllida said, coming out. “She has to take Richard the Lionhearted for an ultrasound today.”
      Richard the Lionhearted was Madeleine’s nine-week-old nephew. Everyone else called him Richard.
      “What’s the matter with him?” Madeleine asked.
      “One of his kidneys is petite, apparently. The doctors want to keep an eye on it. If you ask me, all these ultrasounds do is find things to worry about.”
      “Speaking of ultrasounds,” Alton said, “I need to get one on my knee.”
      Phyllida paid no attention. “Anyway, Allie’s devastated not to see you graduate. As is Blake. But they’re hoping you and your new beau might visit them this summer, on your way to the Cape.”
      You had to stay alert around Phyllida. Here she was, ostensibly talking about Richard the Lionhearted’s petite kidney, and already she’d managed to move the subject to Madeleine’s new boyfriend, Leonard (whom Phyllida and Alton hadn’t met), and to Cape Cod (where Madeleine had announced plans to cohabitate with him). On a normal day, when her brain was working, Madeleine would have been able to keep one step ahead of Phyllida, but this morning the best she could manage was to let the words float past her.
      Fortunately, Alton changed the subject. “So, where do you recommend for breakfast?”
      Madeleine turned and looked vaguely down Benefit Street. “There’s a place this way.”

For other examples of dialogue techniques in practice and the principles of writing good dialogue:

Written by The UnNovelist
The Unnovelist