When it comes to dialogue, the problem I have encountered in writing a memoir for my client is that he has a difficult time remembering conversations; at most I might get a line of two of a conversation between two people, and even then, it is the content of the exchange and not idiosyncrasies of speech that he provides. Entirely absent are characteristic expressions that would help to flesh out important characters in the narrative. In most cases, all I have captured are the bare bones of the exchange.
Just as I was grappling with this problem, I read author and writing teacher Mary Carroll Moore's recent post "Dialogue Do's and Don'ts" on her blog How to Plan, Write and Develop a Book. (I highly recommend signing up for this weekly gem.) Ms. Moore briefly touches on when and when not to use dialogue (something dealt with at length in her popular workshops) and provides excellent insights into what makes for effective dialogue.
I plan to do the following exercise soon, but even if you choose not to do it, the tips she provides here are extremely helpful:
- Eavesdrop on conversations in public places.
- Write down dialogue you hear and pay attention to "beats": where people pause, interrupt, change the subject.
- Listen for the subtext of what is being said in these pauses or shifts; i.e., listen for what is not being revealed.
- Note how the emotional punch resides in the subtext.
- Note how speakers shift away from a topic that becomes too "hot" or uncomfortable.
- Take what you have learned back to the draft of a scene from a story you are working on and use it to evaluate dialogue you have created; see if the dialogue you are working on reveals too much information too early.
- Craft the dialogue, aiming for more subtlety and paying attention to your placement of the "reveal."
While this exercise may not solve the problem I have of too little information from my client, I think it will still help me improve the dialogue I have included in the narrative. If nothing else, it has brought home to me that the dialogue must serve a function, that it cannot just be there to add variety to the text.
I would love to hear of others' experience with writing dialogue, problems you encountered and how you solved them. Happy dialogue crafting!