Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Show, Don't Tell: Writing Dynamic Scenes with Effective Dialogue

The men shook hands. The owner seemed pleased. It appeared he might be renting to someone who could pay the rent on time.
            “Well, let me show you the place,” he said, nodding toward the archway that spelled out Greenbrae Boardwalk in block letters. “You’re lucky it’s so close to the entrance. Most people have a little further to walk to get their mail or to their car for a drive into town. You’d be moving in at a good time too—June won’t give you and the missus any rain for getting your furniture and clothes and things to the house. Lots of fog though, mostly in the mornings. Then a wind picks up in the afternoon.”

the house at the boardwalk
            They walked along the narrow redwood planks, accessible only by foot or bicycle.
            “How do people bring in groceries or take out the trash?” my mother asked.
            “Oh, everyone’s got a garden cart or two, easy to wheel out. Shouldn’t cause you any trouble in your, uh, condition,” he said, glancing at her and quickly looking away as they passed under the train trestle.

I wrote the passage above as part of my first MFA summer submission--a 20-30 page piece intended to be a portion of my final thesis manuscript. Though I'm technically working in nonfiction, I have an inclination to blur the boundaries, at least for experimentation's sake. All I really know is that my parents, living a secret life out of wedlock, met the landlord before renting a little A-frame house on this boardwalk in June, 1966.

I found that as I transcribed the interviewed with my father, visited the boardwalk, took notes and photos on the setting, and did some research about the history of the place and the era, I came to inhabit it. Then, as I placed my parents there, it was as if I were walking right along with them, moving back in time. My real-life parents became characters, and to inhabit them--to think their thoughts, to see what they saw--my scenes that make their story come alive became somewhat fictionalized.

Writing scenes with dialogue, gesture and action is vital to any narrative, with the exception of an essay that may be written with mostly exposition. But I didn't want to just "tell" this story. I wanted to "show" it.

Here's a handy trick: to write a dynamic scene, come up with the dialogue first. It's something I just learned from an article in an old issue of Writer's Digest by James Scott Bell: "Record what your characters are arguing about, stewing over, revealing... Pay no attention to attributions (who said what). Just write the lines... Now you can go back and write the narrative that goes with the scene..."

Try it!


rosaria said...

And I would add, start in the middle of the story with that dialogue. Great hint.

barb bits said...

I love dialogue. You almost don't need anything else. I like your blog, and found this a helpful post. I'll visit again. I have a blog on barbarasmirror.com. I write poetry, memoir, essay, and am experimenting with children's lit. My blog is mostly memoir vingettes.

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