This week the focus in my workshop with Lisa Romeo is on dialogue. We read Rhoda Janzen’s wonderful essay, The Tractor Driver or the Pothead? in which the dialogue did so much for the story. It revealed the characters. It provided humor. It set the scene.
And, it made me nervous. What was I to do with dialogue in my writing? In the case of dialogue in my essays, I just kind of throw it in when I recall it happening and hope for the best. Add some salt and pepper and it’ll all be fine. This week’s lesson helped me see that I need to be intentional with dialogue. How is it moving the story forward? How can I use dialogue to show rather than tell? (Oh, not THAT pesky writing advice again!)
Based on the lesson, I revised an essay that I wrote (and submitted to no avail) a few years ago. Here’s an example of some changes I made using dialogue:
After living in Japan for two years, I made my way back to the United States via a stop in Okinawa. My destination was the carefully selected island of Zamami. Saito-san, my travel agent, said Zamami was her favorite of all the islands in Okinawa and assured me that it would be the perfect location to nurse my broken heart.
The one-page brochure in English read: Zamami beach is a perfect picture; one look beneath the waves reveals a tranquil world filled with multi-colored tropical fish. It is a place that will fulfill children’s dreams and transport adults back to childlike innocence.
“Sign me up,” I told her.
An avid scuba diver, Saito-san also told me that I could even do something called “keiken diving”. Experience diving. “It will heal your heart,” she smiled at me. “The fish, they will make you forget him.” Even if it didn’t heal my heart, I would be able to return home and tell my friends and family that after being gone for two years I had not only learned to speak conversational Japanese but I was able to scuba dive as well.
“This place, Zamami, it helps broken heart,” Saito-san, my travel agent, said handing me a brochure.
After living in Japan for two years, I was planning to make my way back to the United States via a stop in Okinawa.
“It is my favorite island,” she nodded at me.
“Sign me up,” I told her.
“There you can try experience diving, the beautiful fish will make you forget him.”
This revision, and focusing on the dialogue, helped me in a few ways:
- I got closer to the story (took out the unnecessary info about what I would be able to tell my friends I’d learned)
- I let the character say it for herself (instead of “Saito-san, my travel agent, said that Zamami was her favorite island,” I changed it to a direct quote, “It is my favorite island,” she nodded at me.)
- Adding dialogue changed the pace…whereas the “before” version is moving to the same point, I think the “after” version gets to the point much more directly and (hopefully) more powerfully
In fiction and in personal essays alike, I’m encouraged to take a deeper look at what dialogue can do for my stories. And, to keep a close ear on what people say to help me create realistic dialogue.
Who knows, my eavesdropping skills might just finally pay off.