An Interview with Sunday's Speaker: Laurie Ann Doyle, Dialogue and You
We caught up with Laurie Ann Doyle before she speaks for the club this Sunday. At our monthly meeting, she’ll be talking all about writing better dialogue. Doyle knows her stuff: she’s been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and won the Alligator Juniper National Fiction Award. Her work has been published in The Los Angeles Review, Timber, Jabberwock Review, Road Story, Arroyo Literary Review, Under the Sun Magazine, and many other journals. She teaches creative writing at the San Francisco Writers Grotto and UC Berkeley Extension, where she received the Honored Instructor award. Learn more at her site, LaurieAnnDoyle.com.
We hope you will bring all pressing craft questions to this Sunday’s meeting. Until then, our social media chair Cristina Deptula asked her some questions.
Cristina Deptula: I see your new book, World Gone Missing, is a collection of stories about people who go missing, or disappear from our lives, in one way or another. How did you select that theme?
The truth is I didn’t select that theme as much as it picked me. Before I had even a thought of a book in my brain, my brother-in-law went missing. Decades later, sadly he still hasn’t reappeared. Though the opening story in World Gone Missing—“Bigger Than Life”—has a similar through-line, I completely fictionalized the characters and specific plot points. What remains true to life is the feeling you get when a loved one seems to vanish into thin air. The best way I can describe it is a sinking, helpless sensation. As the years wore on, I began to see my brother-in-law in new ways. I appreciated his subtle kindnesses and sharp wit, along with his sometimes brash and irrational nature. Thought I’m not sure this would have changed anything, I wish I could have been more compassionate.
As I finished the “Bigger Than Life” story and embarked on others, I realized that losing a loved one can trigger many conflicted feelings, and conflict is at the heart of fiction. Sometimes a person’s absence can free up a character to do things they’d never done before, wonderful things. Sometimes they find it almost impossible to move on. This realization got me going and in this book I’ve explored both the loss and liberation that absence can bring. But I had to get a chunk of stories written before that unifying theme floated up.
What makes dialogue good? So many people stumble over their words and not everyone speaks in an interesting way.
I love writing dialogue, and there’s a lot of what I hope is interesting dialogue in World Gone Missing. The tricky thing is that dialogue in fiction and memoir should sound like authentic speech, even though it’s not. Strong dialogue is distilled, rather than transcribed, speech. If you tape record people talking, you’ll hear lots of “filler” words: um, uh, yeah, etc. On the page, this needs to be edited out.
At my October 15 Dialogue Workshop, we’ll talk about the importance of giving the reader only the most dramatic elements of what was said. Usually less is more. Consider keeping your sentences or phrases short. The Russian author Anton Chekhov advised, “A line of dialogue should always leave the sense that more could have been said.” Depending on your character, you don’t have to necessarily be grammatically correct or eloquent. Quirky is great! If within character, use of profanity is also fine.
Consider the difference between “It’s a pleasure to meet you”—vs.—“Hey man, what’s up?” Or “I feel unwell”—vs.—I feel like crap.” Good dialogue accomplishes many things at once; it reveals the character and their relationships, creates tension, advances plot, and modulates the story’s pace.
On fascinating aspect of dialogue is that people often don’t mean what they say, or avoid the “real” subject. Strong dialogue also creates subtext, or the unspoken meaning underneath the words on the pages. Consider what your characters are not saying, where they are not finishing their sentences or falling completely silent. What is the implicit tension, as well as the explicit tension?
Dialogue is every bit as important in memoir as it is in fiction, because it’s vital in creating compelling drama and powerful scenes. In a nonfiction piece, you don’t have to accurately reflect every word that was said. It’s fine to reconstruct the conversation and give us the gist, including the most dramatic elements, as I discuss above. The key is to stay true to the people you are portraying and how they expressed themselves.
If you need more information, consider talking with a relative or friend, or reading old letters. If appropriate, you could even eavesdrop. Base your dialogue on the knowledge of the people you’re portraying. If they swore, include swear words. If they were excessively polite, craft your dialogue to show that. Again, work to stay true to the experience of them and yourself.
On October 15, we’ll go into greater depth on all this, and you’ll have a chance to try out some new dialogue techniques in a free-write exercise yourself.
Join us this Sunday at Preservation Park to meet Laurie Ann Doyle and learn all her tricks for writing terrific dialog.