Shape Stories with Dialogue

by Memoir Mentor on September 22, 2009

conversationsI teach my students to tell stories by turning incidents from their past into scenes. In my last post, Carol Enos used this technique to re-create an event in her ancestor’s life. Scenes pull your readers into your life, letting them feel like they’re sharing your experiences with you.

If there’s more that one person in your scene, they will likely talk to each other, which means you will need to include dialogue. There is an art to writing dialogue. It takes practice to make it sound natural and serve a useful purpose in your story, both advancing the plot and developing the personalities and perspective of the people doing the talking. Beginning writers tackling dialogue for the first time often have trouble with what I call “talking heads.” Their characters talk to each other, but there’s no body language or sense of where the conversation is taking place–both important factors in helping readers visualize what’s going on.

The story that follows from my student Marta Sarkissian reveals her talent for writing dialogue.  Marta tells her story with a scene that re-creates a time in her early marriage when she believed her recent conversion to Christianity posed potential problems for her husband. After a brief introduction, Marta reveals the situation through dialogue. As you read, notice details of setting, gesture, appearance, sound, and smell that allow you to “see” the conversation between Marta and her husband. Note how dialogue reveals each person’s point of view. How does a scene help Marta reveal that time in her marriage? If she had merely summarized that event, what would we have lost?

How to Strike a Bargain
by Marta Sarkissian

In 1959 time alone with my husband was a precious and scarce commodity. Our household bulged with three children, twelve, ten and three years of age, two cats, two rabbits and the emotional weight of the crib death of our baby daughter.

Marta and HalBut after our kids were in bed, and that might be late, Hal and I clung to each other on a slick Naugahyde couch. One lamp Hal made from a wine bottle cast a yellow glow on the carpet. We heard Mozart’s 25th symphony on our six-foot stereo system Hal invented long before stereo became commercial. While we listened, we thrashed out our beliefs and personal histories. We both made a conscious attempt to handle the changes caused by my conversion to Christianity after the death of Jennifer.

My vision of an angel comforting me when she died made me feel weird. Becoming a Christian convert made me feel even weirder. My sudden shift from Humanism to Christianity ground against my husband’s scientific borders. The pastor’s words, “Choose life,” rang in my heart and drove me away from death and into a Christian commitment.

“Why are you so against churches?” I asked Hal. I stared through the bay window at the moonlit treetops of Chautauqua Canyon, Pacific Palisades. The scent of chaparral wafted through the window. A coyote howled. The canyon came alive.

Hal always reflected before speaking. He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Martha, I’m not against churches per se. In high school, I went to a Catholic youth group and it was a lot of fun.  But as an adult looking at the larger picture, I see religion as a source of prejudice and killing.” He wrinkled his forehead and patted my knees with his square engineer’s hand.

I straightened up and tried to form a non-controversial reply.  “You mean, historically, churches are a problem?”  Hal came from an immigrant Armenian family, and I, from prejudiced middle-class Anglo parents. We knew we needed to construct bridges of understanding to reach each other.

Hal drew a shuddering breath before he spoke. “Armenia is the oldest Christian country in the world,” he began. “There were a hundred churches in my mother’s village. All the village wealth went into churches instead of to an army for protection. The Armenians were unable to stand against the Turks.”

“I know, Hal, it was like the Germans with the Jews—hideous. Ethnic cleansing.  But the real reason for the killing wasn’t religion. Economic greed motivated the Turks. Armenians and Jews both had a lot of property. Why blame churches?”

He tightened his jaw. The blood pulsed in a vein in his neck. “The ruling class in Turkey probably had economic reasons for the holocaust, but they used religion to motivate the common man to kill.”

Wanting to hide from the past, I hid my face in my hands. Then, peeking out, I shrugged my shoulders. “What’s all that got to do with my attending Pacific Palisades Lutheran church?”

“Martha, I want you to be the free spirit I married. Churches make bigots of people. The Turks and Armenians both believed they had the only way to God. The Turks employed their religious fables to justify their slaughter of Armenians, just as Christians once used their fables to justify the crusades.” He laid his right hand over the left and cracked his knuckles. “My mother lost her faith in God when she saw two of her children murdered and she was thrown into the Syrian Desert.”

I twisted with his pain and placed my hands on his. I kissed his fingers and swollen knuckles. “What you say is terrible and true, and I hate it. But we’re living in the twentieth century, USA. We don’t have ancient feuds like Europe and Asia.”

He sighed. “You’re too naïve, Martha. Those feelings still persist here today.” He shook his head to clear his mind. “Okay, forget ancient history. Growing up in Fresno, I saw too many hypocritical Christians. I don’t want you to join their ranks.”

“When have you ever seen a hypocritical Christian?” I asked.

He got a faraway tone in his voice. “When I was a kid in Depression days, my parents worked night and day to make a living.  Sundays, customers would stream into our market after attending church across the street. From the time I was seven, it was my job to follow the customers around the store. When someone slipped a pound of butter or a can of tomato paste in her purse, I ran to my mom at the check-out and whispered in her ear. Then she added the item to her bill. She paid. We never lost a customer that way but I formed a different idea of church goers than you have.”

“Honey, I imagine those customers were really hungry,” I said. I pictured to myself the little boy Hal, whom they called Apete, wearing a hand-knit brown sweater and trailing a covey of stout shoppers around barrels of pickles and sacks of rice. I imagined his dark brown curls tumbling on his high forehead. I watched his expressive eyes catch every movement of a shopper. Then I looked at my husband and hugged him and pressed kisses on his eyelids. “I bet that was hard on you,” I added.

He smiled. “Well, if you really want to go to church, go ahead. But if you take the kids with you, don’t turn them against me.”The phonograph records on the turntable ended and he rushed to turn over the stack.

I called after him, “Hey, darling, the kids adore you. I couldn’t turn them away from you if I wanted to. And I want your beliefs and attitudes for them, too. Can’t you see, I don’t know how to organize myself now…after….”

He carefully closed the phonograph lid and the music commenced again. I stood up. We gazed in each others’ eyes. “I’ll go to social events with you and the kids at church, but not to religious rites,” he said. “Just promise you won’t stop loving me.”

“I couldn’t,” I answered. Solemnly we shook hands on the contract. I promised myself I would never forget his words. I was fearful I might lose my own boundaries under the hot lava of faith, so I welcomed him to protect my borders. Our long midnight discussions gave me the courage to move ahead into the far country of faith and gave Hal the courage to trust my journey.