ENGL 3850: Dialogue Repetition:
The Echo Technique

Echo words and parallel structure can link your dialogue exchanges and make your scenes flow smoothly. Cormac McCarthy is a master of this sort of repetition: study the echos in these two scenes from his novel The Crossing (Random House 1994).

Two brothers, Billy (17, the protagonist) and Boyd (15), are traveling around Mexico on horseback. They're looking for some other horses stolen off their parents' ranch.

They rode through the ruins of old sawmills and they rode through a mountain meadow dotted with the dark stumps of trees. Across a valley in the evening with the sun on it they could see the tailings of an old silvermine and camped in withy huts among the rusted shapes of antique machinery a family of gypsy miners working the abandoned shaft who now stood aligned all sizes of them before the evening cookfire watching the riders pass along the opposing slope and shading their eyes against the sun with their hands like some encampment of ragged and deranged militants at review. That same evening he shot a rabbit and they halted in the long mountain light and made a fire and cooked the rabbit and ate it and fed the guts to the dog and then the bones and when they were done they sat gazing into the coals.

You reckon the horses know where we're at? Boyd said.

What do you mean?

He looked up from the fire. I mean do you reckon they know where we're at.

What the hell kind of question is that?

Well. I reckon it's a question about horses and what they know about where they're at.

Hell, they don't know nothin. They're just in some mountains somewheres. You mean do they know they're in Mexico?

No. But if we was up in the Peloncillos or somewheres they'd know where they was at. They could find their way back if you turned em out.

Are you askin me if they could find their way back from here if you cut em loose?

I dont know.

Well what are you askin.

I'm askin if they know where they're at.

Billy stared at the coals. I dont know what the hell you're talkin about.

Well. Forget it.

You mean like they got a picture in their head of where the ranch is at?

I dont know.

Even if they did it wouldnt mean they could find it.

I didnt mean they could find it. Maybe they could and maybe they couldnt.

They couldnt backtrack the whole way. Hell.

I dont think they backtrack. I think they just know where things are.

Well you know moren me then.

I didnt say that.

No, I said it.

He looked at Boyd. Boyd sat with the blanket over his shoulders and his cheap boots crossed before him. Why dont you go to bed? he said.

Boyd leaned and spat into the coals. He sat watching the spittle boil. Why dont you, he said.

Later, after they've recovered their horses and are trying to make it back to the States:

They sat in the shade of a whitewashed mud wall and ate tacos off of greasy brown papers that they'd bought from a streetvendor. The dog watched. Billy balled the empty paper and wiped his hands on his jeans and got his knife out and measured a length of rope between his outstreached arms.

Are we goin to set here? said Boyd.

Yeah. Why? You got an appointment some-wheres?

Why don't we go over yonder and set in the alameda?

All right.

How come you reckon they never branded the horses?

I don't know. They probably been traded all over the country.

Maybe we ought to brand em.

What the hell you going to brand em with?

I dont know.

Billy cut the rope and laid the knife by and looped the bosal. Boyd put the last corner of the taco in his mouth and sat chewing.

What do you reckon is in these tacos? he said.



Sure. You see how the dog was looking at you?

They aint done it, said Boyd.

You see any cats in the street?

It's too hot for cats in the street.

You see any in the shade?

There could be some laid up in the shade somewheres.

How many cats have you seen anywheres?

You wouldnt eat a cat, Boyd said. Even to get to watch me eat one.

I might.

No you wouldnt.

I would if I was hungry enough.

You aint that hungry.

I was pretty hungry. Wasnt you?

Yeah. I aint now. We aint eat no cats have we?


Would you know it if we had?

Yeah. You would too. I thought you wanted to go over in the alameda.

I'm waitin on you.

Lizards now, Billy said. You caint tell them from chicken hardly.

Shit, said Boyd.

Cormac McCarthy is the author of seven novels, including All the Pretty Horses, winner of the National Book Award and a national bestseller. He grew up in Tennessee and now makes his home in Texas.


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