Instructors’ Teaching Experience

I’ve only taught this story once, but it went over well. While many students were perplexed about what was happening, other students offered readings which provided the fuel for the class discussion. The confusion for most of the students stems from the fact that the story is told almost entirely in dialogue and the neither speaker names what they are talking about. Since I was interested in getting my students to notice how a story is told and why such a technique might be used, this story worked well. The dialogue driven technique helped them recognized how much they rely on a narrator. [L. Sweeney,]

My students enjoyed this short story, even if most of them believed that they knew what it was ‘about’ before we even began to talk about it in class. Because I had been warned that this was possible, I tried to encourage them to stay silent about what ‘it’ is if they had looked it up, but I had the feeling that someone would say it eventually (something to be prepared for). I wanted to use this as a chance to show them that what everyone says a story is about is not necessarily something to trust, and to demonstrate that they could perform a reading of a text despite previous knowledge. [J. Horn,]

Classroom Strategies

I think this story would work well as a bridge between prose and drama. It may be useful to ask what makes the difference between prose and drama, as a means of getting students to think about what a genre is and how it shapes a narrative. [L. Sweeney,]

Comment: Reading “HLWE” after “Roman Fever” seemed especially generative. [R. Fernandez]

Performing the Story

Because this story relies entirely on the dialogue and actions of the characters to convey meaning, rather than exposition, I have my class perform it. It is an effective way for them to figure out what is going on, and to pick up on things like sarcasm, because it forces them to contemplate how each character delivers the lines, the mood, and what lies beneath seemingly mundane phrases. I break the class up into groups of four and assign a director, an assistant director, and a male and female lead. Each group performs a section of the story. They spend some time rehearsing, and the director and assistant director help with directing the actors, which is where the real learning takes place, as they puzzle it out. For example, when the female lead delivers the line about knowing lots of people who have done it (the abortion) “[a]nd afterwards they were all so happy” the students generally missed the sarcasm when just reading the story, but when they have to perform it, they realize her bitterness and understand that the line is intended to be sarcastic. [M. Eerkens,]

“Fly on the Wall” Dialogue Exercise

 Let’s think about dialogue.  Have you ever read dialogue in a story that seemed perfectly natural?  What does it mean for dialogue to be natural?  How can one capture true dialogue on the page?  Can it be done, or is it a hindrance to conveying ideas and moving the reader forward?  For this exercise, I’d like for you to break etiquette and out and out EAVESDROP.  Perhaps you can go to a crowded café or sidewalk, but try not to be too obvious (or rude – do use discretion!).  Come to class having recorded one full page of real life dialogue.  Accompanying this should be another full page comparing the ‘real’ dialogue you’ve collected to the dialogue in one of the stories we’ve read in class (“Hills Like White Elephants” might prove most interesting).  How does the pace of speech differ between speakers?  Between subjects?  What does that reveal?  Is slang used?  Are the conversators old friends or distant acquaintances?  How do you know?

Broader questions perhaps to be addressed:  Which of the dialogues (the ‘real’ or the ‘fictional’) would you prefer to read on the page?  Why?  For which dialogue can you develop a richer context or narrative?  What type of story would the ‘real life’ dialogue lead you to write, were you to include it?  Having recorded a ‘real’ conversation, would you say the story’s ‘fictional’ dialogue is natural?  Why or why not?

If you want to get really wacky, instead of filling your page of dialogue with one conversation, try two: half of a page of ‘real life’ spoken dialogue, and half of a page of digital dialogue – see if you can dig up some old AIM conversations or maybe even a long thread of text messages.

Making ‘It’ Mean More

The first part of this activity involves getting the class to help you write on the board all of the possible clues we have as to what ‘it’ could be, from the strange ‘let the air in’ to more general ‘unease with the topic’. Once you have a solid list of things that clue us in, break the students up into groups and ask each group to come up with three things that ‘it’ could be, not that it has to be those things. They have to rationalize their choices based on the clues we had, and it was fun watching them call each other out on strange choices. Because they have to do three, you almost always end up with only two per group, the third being abortion, and many more things besides. It helps them keep an open mind. [J. Horn,]

Discussion Questions

The following questions proved useful in getting students to think about PLOT, CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT, & SETTING:

  • This story combines sparse description and dialogue. It may help to mark which person is speaking, especially when “he said” and “she said” are missing. What details of setting or dialogue stand out for you as important in the story? Look at those carefully.
  • How do you picture the two characters, “Jig” and “the American”? Do these “names” seem significant?

[Questions submitted by R. Fernandez]