The short answers: Use dialog to signify moods/feelings. Or, as an example of making words bounce off the page, Pepper Your Life Stories with Dialog to Add Zing
Life story writing certainly begins by describing events and people we have encountered, but how do we make these stories more than just a -- sorry, the word is dull -- recitation of facts? And an equally dull series of descriptions of how a character feels? These are questions that come up often among people in my classes, and in private coaching.
My recipe is, first, to capture and record dialog. If you don’t remember exactly what was said, that’s alright. Create conversations that come as close as possible to what you remember. A great technique for writing dialog is to imagine you’re talking with a friend.
Second, remember to keep your dialog in character. Each person you write about talks in a way that is specific for that person. Not everybody is from Australia, for example. So not everyone will greet another character with the phrase, “G’day, mate.” But if you have an Aussie you’re quoting, this would be a valid and lively phrase to use.
A very good way to get a handle on using dialog in writing a book of your life stories is to read samples from a few autobiographies or memoirs before plunging back in to writing again yourself. This is not at all to say that you have never read a book. Far from it. Refreshing/immersing yourself in a genre is a tool that most writers (including me) use to get themselves in the groove of writing in a particular form. I have a great book to recommend. It's Steve Martin's autobiography, Born Standing Up. If you go into the library (while they still exist) and browse the biography section, you can find many other books that will contain a mix of prose and dialog that should help inform your writing.
OK. So we insert dialog, but now, how much dialog is too much/too little? This related question comes from a very talented, very funny woman I coached. Her initial submission was a 25 page listing of the events in her life. It was not an easy life story -- she had a serious illness. But she treated each (often frightening) milestone with enormous good humor. Nonetheless, the result was far too much on the surface. We never knew how the main character was feeling. I suggested she insert dialog.
The student came back in a very short time with an entirely new book – laced with so much dialog we now weren’t sure what the action was. So, the challenge became finding a balance between description and dialog. While there are no real rules on proportions of prose to conversation, basically, the idea is to arrange dialog snippets within descriptive sections of an episode in your book. The dialog can then be used as a tool to expand the story in a way that literally speaks to readers. Here’s a sample:
Tom yelled at Sarah, "You're a spiteful, ugly witch, and I'm sick to death of being around you!"
Sarah slumped into the tub chair in her living room as he uttered his horrid words. Frozen, she was unable to move or speak. Tom waved his arms in the air for a minute, then slammed out the door. Sarah knew it was for the last time.
Now, we could follow with:
Sarah felt terrible.
Or, we could insert a phone call from a girl friend.
From somewhere outside her consciousness, Sarah heard a persistent, repeating sound. Rousing, she realized it was the phone. She slowly dragged herself to the instrument across the room and picked up the receiver.
“Hello,” Sarah mumbled, barely audible.
“Hi, Sarah? You don’t sound like yourself. Are you alright?”
Sarah realized it was her BFF, Kim. She let go, sobbing into the phone.
“Sarah, Sarah! What happened?”
“T…T…Tom. He…he… left…me!”
“What are you talking about? What happened?”
“He called me names, said horrible things, and slammed out.”
“Oh, he’s gotten mad at you before. He’ll be back.”
“Not this time.”
“How do you know that?”
“I don’t know. It’s just the way he said it. This time he’ll never come back…I know it. What can I do? I don’t know how I’ll be able to go on without him. After all these years.”
“Listen, honey. I can tell you feel terrible. You shouldn’t be alone. Do you want me to come over?”
Etc. Finish the dialog on the phone yourself! With a very short additional couple of lines.
Which method do you find makes for a better read?
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