When I was teaching seventh grade and also going to night school for my masters degree, one synchronistic day I taught a lesson on writing dialogue to my twelve-year-olds only to show up at my evening class—to a lesson on dialogue. Of course I told the kids the next day. The lovely (and ironic part) of practicing any art is that you’re never done. Every facet of the literary craft has infinite depth. I’ll be learning how to write dialogue for the rest of my life.
He said, she said: Dialogue is a craft technique that forces writers to use scenes—to “show” rather than “tell,” as fiction teachers perpetually remind us. I drew two quotation marks on the blackboard and turned to the class. “Whenever anyone talks in your story, you put these at the beginning and end of what they say.” The kids squirmed in their seats. Scenes engage readers holistically, stimulating our senses, exercising our imagination and intellect, expanding our capacity for empathy…that is, changing us, which is the definition of an effective story. But before scenes can do any of this work, they first must change the writer. “No surprise for the writer,” Robert Frost wrote (and I endlessly repeat), “no surprise for the reader.” A writer’s capacity to move the reader depends on the writer’s openness to being moved.
Dialogue thrusts the writer into a moment, fictional or real. Because of this, it holds our literary irons to the fire of what it means to be human. Dialogue takes us out of our heads into our bodies, where words resonate in the gut and are charged with emotion and bind or break relationships. Dialogue places us in community. “Show, don’t tell” isn’t just a literary trick; it’s a clue to a metaphysical principle of how story (and the world) functions. Story comes alive with scenes—with relational dynamics that move us from one way of being to another. Dialogue is just what we see on the incarnated surface.
The exchanges between people in stories always point through a glass darkly to the bigger exchanges of our lives, with meaning or the universe or God, with the writing process, with our creative presence… Writing itself is a dialogue. You intend to write one thing but wind up writing another. You crank out a draft; you wait, you get feedback, you read it over, and suddenly the draft calls back to you for something more. Just as you work on the story, it works on you.
So the fundamental, foundational dialogue in any story is the relational exchange of creation. How amazing that writing takes us there! –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew
Join me at Wisdom Ways next Friday to explore the role of dialogue in spiritual memoir. Drop-ins welcome.
Over the past year, what had been the Book Binders’ Salon has morphed into a writing group experiment called The Authors’ Circle. Writers gather to listen deeply to one another’s processes and products. We’re bringing the year to a close with a public reading and celebration on June 5th. Curious about this group? Please come!
Plan ahead to invest in your writing! From September 24-28, I’ll be leading a retreat at the Madeline Island School of the Arts based on Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice. Save a week of your year to dive deep.