O’Connor’s deft dialog transitions
In “A Good Man is Hard to Find” beleaguered Bailey and his wife take their young family, eight-year-old son John Wesley, daughter June Star, their small baby, and finally, Bailey’s mother on a road trip for vacation to Florida. The children are obnoxious, the grandmother is selfish and irritating to all, and Bailey just wants to get there. The grandmother convinces the children that they must visit a special house that has a secret panel and they begin haranguing their father to take a detour and he finally gives in just to get everybody to quiet down. Off the beaten path and lost, they have an accident and encounter a psychopathic killer, “The Misfit” and his two accomplices. What begins as a comic story suddenly becomes horrifying and violent as the family is systematically murdered by the three men. The last to die is the Grandmother, who desperately pleads and appeals to The Misfit for her life to the very end.
O’Connor’s story is told economically and she manages the pace of the action to move swiftly between main plot points without sacrificing the richness of the characterizations. She does this by deftly transitioning between direct and indirect dialogue.
In the beginning of the story, where the primary conflicts are between the members of the family, the dialog is mostly direct:
The children’s mother didn’t seem to hear her but the eight-year-old boy, John Wesley, a stocky child with glasses, said “If you don’t want to go to Florida, why dontcha stay at home?” He and the littler girl, June Star, were reading the funny papers on the floor.
“She wouldn’t stay at home to be queen for a day,” June Star said without raising her yellow head.
“Yes and what would you do if this fellow, The Misfit, caught you?” the grandmother asked.
“I’d smack his face,” John Wesley said.
“She wouldn’t stay at home for a million bucks,” June Star said. “Afraid she’s miss something. She has to go everywhere we go.”
“All right, Miss,” the grandmother said. “Just remember that the next time you want me to curl your hair.”
June Star said her hair was naturally curly.
The final line of that scene, “June Star said her hair was naturally curly,” is delivered indirectly, bringing that exchange and the scene to a clear but even conclusion. This allows for a smooth transition to the next paragraph where the action picks up the next day. Had it been delivered directly, the reader would have anticipated a response from the grandmother and the scene would have ended too abruptly.
Later, during the long car trip, much of the dialogue is rendered indirectly. O’Connor switches to “telling” instead of “showing” in order to move through the non-dramatic parts of the narrative quickly; the length of the car ride is conveyed without taking the length of the car ride:
When the children finished all the comic books they had brought, they opened the lunch and ate it. The grandmother ate a peanut butter sandwich and an olive and would not let the children throw the box and the paper napkins out the window. When there was nothing else to do they played a game by choosing a cloud and making the other two guess what shape it suggested. John Wesley took one the shape of a cow and June Star guessed a cow and John Wesley said, no, an automobile and June Star said he didn’t play fair, and they began to slap each other over the grandmother.
This further reinforces the conflicts within the family, but their importance is receding; we are headed toward the main conflict of the story will be between the grandmother and The Misfit. It adds to the characterization and our understanding of the characters, but does not distract us by fully dramatizing the action. It’s now less important and will only slow us down in getting to the main point. It conveys the tediousness of the drive without being tedious.
The scene continues with the grandmother telling the children a story. Again, this story is told directly. There is no dramatic interaction between the characters in the main story and is more about the teller—the grandmother as a gentle southern lady—and not critical to the advancement of the main plot. It’s important, but needs to be covered quickly:
The grandmother said she would tell them a story if they would keep quiet. When she told a story, she rolled her eyes and waved her head and was very dramatic. She said once when she was a maiden lady she had been courted by a Mr. Edgar Atkins Teagarden from Jasper, Georgia. She said he was a very good-looking man and a gentleman and that he brought her a watermelon every Saturday afternoon with his initials cut in it, E. A. T. Well, one Saturday, she said, Mr. Teagarden brought the watermelon and there was nobody at home and he left it on the front porch and returned in his buggy to Jasper, but she never got the watermelon she said, because a nigger boy ate it when he saw the initials E. A. T.! This story tickled John Wesley’s funny bone and he giggled and giggled but June Star didn’t think it was any good. She said she wouldn’t marry a man that just brought her a watermelon on Saturday. The grandmother said she would have done well to marry Mr. Teagarden because he was a gentleman and had bought Coca-Cola stock when it first came out and that he had died only a few years ago, a very wealthy man.
When they stop for lunch, the pace slows down briefly for part of the exchange between the grandmother and Red Sammy, the owner of the restaurant and gas station. This is an important moment in the story where the major theme, along with the title of the story is introduced, and it is fully dramatized with direct dialogue, that briefly shifts into indirect in order provide coherent action without distracting from the main point of the conversation:
“Ain’t she cute?” Red Sam’s wife said, leaning over the counter. “Would you like to come be my little girl?”
“No I certainly wouldn’t,” June Star said. I would live in a broken-down place like this for a million bucks!” and she ran back to the table.
“Ain’t she cute?” the woman repeated, stretching her mouth politely.
“Aren’t you ashamed?” hissed the grandmother.
Red Same came in and told his wife to quit lounging on the counter and hurry up with these people’s order. His khaki trousers reached just to his hip bones and his stomach hung over them like a sack of meal swaying under his shirt. He came over and sat down at a table nearby and let out a combination sigh and yodel. “You can’t win,” he said. “You can’t win,” and he wiped his sweating red face off with a gray handkerchief. “These days you don’t know who to trust,” he said. “Ain’t that the truth?”
In contrast to the earlier passage where the transition is from direct to indirect, the transition at the end of this passage is from indirect to direct, slowing the pace down and bringing attention to one of the main themes of the story: “These days you don’t know who to trust.”
The final part of the story, the systematic execution of the family, the dialogue is mostly direct, but more interspersed with descriptions of the dramatic action happening. The interplay between The Misfit and the grandmother is front and center but the tension is maintained by never letting either of them talk to long before another family member is shot. The dialogue is dramatic, but we’re never allowed to forget, and be shocked, by what’s going on around them.
“A Good Man is Hard to Find,” at about 6500 words—neither particularly long nor short—reads very quickly by using the transitions between direct and indirect dialogue to compress and the necessary but ultimately secondary points of plot and theme, and then expand, almost slowing time, during the major points of plot and theme. These transitions also enable one mode punctuate the other, providing a kind of rhythm between fast and slow parts that keeps the reader attentive for the duration. The story is enriched by many diversions that enhance the reading experience but never get in the way of the main plot. Each sentence encourages you to read the next.
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