As the title suggests, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” is constructed almost entirely from dialogue. The story begins with the narrator, Nick, explaining who is talking and where this talking is taking place, but actual conversation soon overtakes this description. For the rest of the story, Nick interrupts the dialogue only to describe the accompanying actions, such as when someone pours a drink, sips gin, or touches someone else. Twice, Nick describes the changing sunlight, and at the end of the story, he describes them all sitting quietly as the sunlight leaves completely. Such interruptions are rare, and the ones concerning the sunlight serve as markers to lead us through the arc of the conversation. As the sun dims and the gin bottles empty, the conversation grows more confused and sometimes even hostile. The interruptions are significant, but the expanses of uninterrupted conversation are significant as well: despite the length of the discussion, the true definition or meaning of love remains elusive. These characters can talk all they want, but they’ll never be able to pinpoint the nature of love.
Although Carver’s dialogue seems to mimic the way people really talk, it actually reflects an effective writing technique. Carver repeats words and phrases to add rhythm to the dialogue, such as when Terri says, “But he loved me. In his own way, maybe, but he loved me. There was love there.” These lines have a lilting, musical rhythm, and the repetition of “there” adds an almost poetic quality. Carver also repeats phrases for emphasis, such as when Mel twice repeats a variation of “If you call that love, you can have it.” Characters sometimes echo one another, such as when Terri says, “But I love you, hon,” and Mel responds, “Honey, I love you.” These lines of dialogue sound natural, but at the same time Carver has not simply tried to transcribe a real-life conversation. He has focused his attention on keeping his story vibrant and compelling by subtly incorporating such literary techniques into the dialogue itself.