GIVE LIFE TO YOUR MEMOIR WITH DIALOGUE
GIVE LIFE TO YOUR MEMOIR WITH DIALOGUE by Viga Boland, editor, Memoirabilia
(originally published in MEMOIRABILIA #2)
As a reader, I get impatient with books that go on with page after page of description, reflection and no dialogue. I start skipping and skimming the pages. Oddly enough, when I began writing “No Tears for my Father”, it didn’t dawn on me that I was writing exactly what I disliked reading: paragraphs of narrative! This is so typical of first time memoir writers.
It was a well-known Aussie writer friend, Kate Walker, who reminded me that my memoir was, after all, a “story”. In stories, people move & TALK! Duh! Of course. As memoirists, we still need to write like fiction writers do and not make ours the only voice heard. Our story has characters. We need to paint scenes, complete with narrative & dialogue so our readers can see and feel what we saw, heard and felt. Just narrating memories doesn’t make it come alive.
Since then, when I write, there’s an antenna on my head: it beeps “use dialogue, stupid!” whenever I get carried away narrating. Let me demonstrate how this worked when I was writing my second memoir, “Learning to Love Myself”. Here’s an initial draft:
I was preparing dinner. The delicious smell of my special stew with its secret ingredient filled our tiny apartment. John looked starved as he came in. I couldn’t wait to see how he would like my stew. I’d been trying really hard to develop my cooking skills and purchased several cookbooks. I was sure this dish would be a hit with its special ingredient.
John had parked himself in front of our little TV and was catching the evening news when I brought the steaming, aromatic bowl of beef stew to him. He smiled lovingly at me and asked for the ketchup. Darn! There it was again. He didn’t seem to be able to eat anything without drowning it in ketchup. I felt myself getting angry but contained my anger, asking him if he could at least try it first before adding the ketchup.
Up went the antenna. BEEP BEEP! “Use dialogue stupid” it screamed at me. Second draft:
“What’s for dinner?” John asked as he entered our tiny apartment. “It smells delicious!”
“It’s a surprise!” I called back excitedly. I’d invested in some cook books to improve my poor culinary skills, and really hoped he would like this beef stew with its secret ingredient. “I tell you, when we buy our first home, a big kitchen with lots of counter space is my number one priority!”
“We’ll get you that big kitchen one day, my love” John said sweetly as I handed him a large bowl of my special, aromatic stew.
“Could I have the ketchup love?”
Ketchup! I hated the very word! No matter what I made John for dinner, he added ketchup to it. I bristled. Couldn’t he, just for once, do me the courtesy of tasting it first before doctoring it with ketchup?! But I hid my displeasure, hesitated a second, then suggested:
“Would you mind tasting it first?” I asked. ”
Can you see the difference using dialogue makes? It’s a technique that I harp on in my memoir workshops, and it’s not nearly as hard as you might think to write dialogue instead of narrative. If it doesn’t come easily when you are writing your first draft, when you re-read it days, even months later as you edit, when you hit a section where you are narrating a conversation between two people, STOP! Read it again. Now make the characters you are telling us about TALK TO EACH OTHER! That’s what happens in real life and that’s what MUST happen in your memoir. Dialogue, not narrative, breathes life into your story.
Want to learn more about using dialogue and narrative effectively in your writing? Here’s a great article: http://classroom.synonym.com/balancing-dialogue-narrative-3289.html