Do you fret over writing dialogue? Do you use dialogue as a filler because you’re not sure where to go next on the page? Well, I’m here to offer some suggestions, that is, on behalf of Rita Zoe Chin, the author of Let the Tornado Come, a brilliantly rendered memoir about her adult onset panic disorder and how she galloped through the storm with unwavering resilience. I met Rita during her writing craft session, “Essentials of Dialogue,” at this year’s Muse and Marketplace in Boston. Since most of us shiver when we hear “rules,” I’m here to assure you that her guidelines are just that, guidelines, though worthy ones I vote for keeping close by on your writing desk.
First and foremost, think of dialogue as having a purpose. Does it advance the narrative, develop the characters, highlight a relationship? When writing the earlier drafts of my memoir, I used to believe I had to get it exact: every word my mother or sister or brother said twelve years earlier. Well, we all know that memories are slippery at best, and what we remember from a dozen years ago may as well be categorized as fiction. When talking about memoir, the best we can do is get it as close to the truth as possible. That said, you don’t need to include every “um,” “uh,” and “oh” on the page. If anything, they’re distracting to readers. Imagine reading this: “Um, I don’t know. Oh, I see. Uh, let me think about that. And, um, I have a story to tell you, um, do you want to hear it?” No. Similarly, salutations like “Hello” and “Goodbye” are not needed. The same goes for nonessential pieces of information like what a character ate for lunch (I suppose if what the character ate moves the story forward in some way then it would be essential). As for accents, this is a tough one. They too can be distracting. And, believe it or not, adverbs do not make for good dialogue. Take a look at this example Rita shared: “She ripped off the wrapping paper and opened the box before he finished reading the gift tag on his. “I love it,” she said, happily.” It’s clear she is happy without having to say so, right? Then there are dialogue tags: I said, he said, she said. Our initial instinct may be to liven up these tags with more active verbs like “I uttered” or “He bellowed.” But, as Rita noted, “let the dialogue do the work.” In other words, get rid of the voice of the narrator. Look at it in the way Rita suggested: “Dialogue tags are there simply to guide us.”
There’s more, but for now, I’ll leave you with a savory tip from Rita: Listen closely to conversations among others: expression, tone, word choice, etc. Pay attention to dialogue when reading, when watching a movie or a play. Read your own dialogue out loud, marking words you stumble over. Maybe there are words unintentionally repeated. And remember: sometimes silence on the page says much more than dialogue.
Hope this helps!