By Mary Jaksch, Chief Editor of Write to Done
I recently had a coffee with a fellow blogger, called John M.
“I’m writing a novel – started yesterday,” he said. “Yep—” he nodded, reaching for the sugar with a frown. “Better than writing those bloody blog posts I have to churn out each week.”
“Well, what’s so great about writing a novel?” I asked.
John poured more sugar into his latte. “I love the dialogues!”
“If you’re so fired up about dialogues, can’t you use them in your non-fiction stuff?”
“Nope,” John shook his head. “Can’t do… they don’t work in non-fiction.”
Many non-fiction writers think like John and miss out on a great tool to liven up their work. Here are three things you need to know in order to make dialogue work in non-fiction:
1. Use dialogue as a hook
Dialogue works as a hook because it makes a story out of mere information. Open a daily paper at random and observe how journalists use this technique. Here, for example, is the beginning of an article on arson statistics in the Guardian:
“I’ve lost everything,” sobbed Marian Boulder outside her house that burned to the ground yesterday morning. “I only got out at the last moment and had to leave behind all my treasures. And the photos of my daughter who died last year.”
Marion Boulder’s house was just one of 340 suspected arson cases this year. Yesterday Police Chief Inspector Holmes commented on the rise of arson…
The story of Marian Boulder is the vivid hook that leads into the kind of piece that keeps statisticians on a high but makes the rest of us reach for a pillow. However, because we are touched by Marion’s story, we are inclined to continue reading—at least for another paragraph, or so.
You might be wondering whether this is really an example of dialogue – after all there’s only one person talking. True. But maybe we can agree that the interviewer’s presence and questions are implied in the story.
2. Use direct quotes for emotional impact
Read the following two paragraphs and see which one has the most impact on you. They are from my upcoming Ebook, called ‘From Tragedy to Triumph: Winning Through a Life Crisis’:
1. The first response to disaster is usually denial–which is the opposite of acceptance. It took a long time for Linda D. to emerge from denial.
2. “Imagine my shock,” Linda said, “when I woke after the operation and the surgeon told me that they had sewn me up again because there was nothing, absolutely nothing they could do for me. They found cancer all through my liver. My first thought was: ‘No! Ben’s only four. I can’t leave him on his own. I just can’t be dying”
I’m sure that you too are emotionally touched by Linda’s story. Instead of just registering that denial is a natural response to shock, we are suddenly faced with Linda’s suffering. At that moment the facts wear a human face.
3. Set the stage for quotes
When you use quotes, you are a film director and must take control of the scene! Don’t let the dialogue just hang there in space. Make sure that your characters do something while they are talking. In her book ‘Write Away’, Elisabeth George calls the actions that accompany dialogue THADs, or a ‘Talking Heads Avoidance Devices’.
To illustrate, let’s take a peak at how I close the story of Linda D.
It was late spring when Linda came to see me one last time. She was frail and her skin was like parchment.
I settled her into a chair on the verandah. The wisteria blooms were a sea of purple. We were silent for a while. Then I asked:
“How do you feel about dying?”
“I feel at peace now,” she said. Then she raised her face to the sun and shut her eyes. “Everything is so precious. Now I know how precious each moment is!”
You can see that the scene is important to bring out the unspoken in the dialogue. The simple act of settling her into a chair in the late sun implies that Linda is now close to death.
You might ask, “Is this really a true story?”
Stick to the truth—but don’t pander to reality.
If you are a journalist, your integrity depends on your objective and truthful reporting. However, as a writer you have license to use creative techniques in order to transmit both information and emotions.
Linda really existed and I knew her well. The quote about how she woke up after the operation is from a taped interview that I did with her before she died. I tidied it up a little but it’s essentially original. I don’t think the wisteria was flowering at the time of her last visit. I use the veranda, the wisteria, and the evening sun as props to set the scene. Notice also that I describe Linda’s face and body with a couple of words. It’s important to flesh out your characters so that readers can imagine them.
There is a lot to learn when writing dialogue. A great way is to read what fiction writers have to say about it. An even better way is to try it out and have fun!
Here are some useful resources:
- Writing Believable Dialogue
- 10 Tips for Writing Dialogue
- Elements of a Novel: Dialogue
- Using Action, Dialogue and Narrative in Nonfiction
- Have a look at this example of dialogue that’s both skilful and quirky. It’s a blog article about how to face rejection letters.
I’d be interested to hear what you have to say about using dialogue. Maybe you’re dead against it. Or maybe you’ve tried it and it was a hit – or it flopped. Whatever your experience is with writing dialogue, please share your thoughts and musings in the comments.
This guest post was written by Mary Jaksch – author, Zen master, and psychotherapist. She writes a blog at Good Life Zen.
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