Written By Louise Nayer
Unless you sprint through life with a tape recorder strapped to your body 24/7, dialogue is created by the author through memory. How do you write believable dialogue? Differentiate your mother’s voice, “I feel ill” from your father’s, “I feel like crap”? Keep it short. It doesn’t have to be grammatically correct, but does need to capture the quirkiness of the speaker. Use action along with dialogue—tearing up a napkin on your lap to show nervousness, staring out the window to show sadness. In my book Burned: A Memoir, I wrote a scene the morning after my parents were burned in an explosion in the cellar of our Cape Cod rental house. I’m four years old, in the basement of our neighbor’s house with my sister and babysitter, Della.
“Will Daddy take us to the beach today?” I asked Della as she lifted her heavy body off the bed, her red wool sweater spilling onto the cool basement floor. “Will Daddy take us to the beach today?”
“They were hurt—in an accident.” Her face was puffed up and red. I turned away clutching my stomach, an acid taste rising in my mouth.
Along with the dialogue, you learn about what Della looks like and also what I’m physically feeling as a child at that moment—an acid taste in my mouth.
In The Glass Castle right at the beginning, author Jeannette Walls has a scene with her homeless mother. A few days before, Walls was in a taxicab and saw her mother picking through trash. She didn’t stop to say hello.
“You want to help me change my life?” Mom asked. “I’m fine. You’re the one who needs help. Your values are all confused.”
“Mom, I saw you picking through trash in the East Village a few days ago.”
“Well, people in this country are too wasteful. It’s my way of recycling.” She took a bite of her Seafood Delight. “Why didn’t you say hello?”
“I was too ashamed, Mom. I hid.”
Mom pointed her chopsticks at me. “You see?” she said. “Right there. That’s exactly what I’m saying. You’re way too easily embarrassed. Your father and I are who we are. Accept it.”
This excerpt is mostly dialogue, but there are a few places where the reader is grounded in the scene, and knows it’s a restaurant. “She took a bit of her Seafood Delight” and “Mom pointed her chopsticks at me.” The action of the mother pointing her chopsticks at her daughter allows us to see the mother’s personality and also is laced with humor.
Dialogue makes a scene come alive and reveals something more about a character. Look through old letters of people who have passed away to help “channel” their voices. Listen and take notes for people now in your life. Practice by writing down snippets of conversations while sipping your cappuccino. Dialogue moves the story along, revealing what each character wants. But often, as in life, you have to read between the lines.
Louise Nayer has been an author an educator for many years. Burned: A Memoir was an Oprah Great Read and won the Wisconsin Library Association Award. Her most recent book, Poised for Retirement: Moving From Anxiety to Zen is about “emotional planning” for retirement and was written up in Next Avenue and Forbes Magazine. She did 27 radio spots based on the book. She is a member of the SF Writer’s Grotto and has been an educator for over forty years.