Dialogue can speak volumes — why not try it in your nonfiction?
Think of a Southern drawl. Think of a heavy accent. Think of someone you know who uses slang or who routinely drops letters when they talk. (Hey man, how’re you? Workin’ hard!) All these elements of speech speak volumes about the subject at hand and can offer clues about ethnicity, location, past experience, history, affluence, sincerity — or even lack thereof.
Not sure how to get started capturing dialogue? Veteran journalist Steve Buttry offers some tips on verifying facts and ensuring accuracy in your interviews.
Trying your hand at nonfiction on your blog, be it memoir, reportage, or even podcasting? Dialogue is a great way to show vs. tell. Today we’ll look at three examples of dialogue that not only infuse their respective pieces with original detail, they help carry the story, allowing readers/listeners to reach their own conclusions.
Dialogue in reportage
Consider this excerpt from “Cops See it Differently, Part One,” a recent This American Life episode covering policing in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In this passage, reporter Brian Reed reflects on changes Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn has made within the police force and the influence those changes have had on Milwaukee citizens:
Brian Reed: As I spent time with members of the department, it was hard to pinpoint exactly what effect these changes have had, but I did get the sense that something had changed, even if it was sometimes intangible. For instance, I kept hearing certain words again and again. The most popular noun I heard, “community.” The most popular verb?
Police Officer 1: We’re here to engage and have a conversation.
Police Officer 2: The officers should be marketing all the opportunities to engage with us.
Police Officer 3: It has helped us to become more engaged in the community.
Police Officer 4: Our community engagement and the activities that we’ve been doing.
Police Officer 5: Building police legitimacy takes place when you directly engage.
The word “engage” appears five times in quick succession. At this point, it’s empty of meaning, similar to how a word, repeated in your head often enough, becomes nonsense. Reed’s technique is masterful here: without explicitly saying so, he not only allows snippets of dialogue to communicate that “engage” is meaningless, the passage evokes a sad irony: instead of “engaging,” why not simply talk with people, get to know them, and form real relationships based on trust and mutual respect? This is dialogue at its best — doing a lot of heavy lifting.
Dialogue in creative nonfiction
Into creative nonfiction? Here’s some advice on how dialogue can reveal character.
Consider this passage from Hunter S. Thompson’s “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved“:
In the air-conditioned lounge I met a man from Houston who said his name was something or other — “but just call me Jimbo” — and he was here to get it on. “I’m ready for anything, by God! Anything at all. Yeah, what are you drinkin?” I ordered a Margarita with ice, but he wouldn’t hear of it: “Naw, naw…what the hell kind of drink is that for Kentucky Derby time? What’s wrong with you, boy?” He grinned and winked at the bartender. “Goddam, we gotta educate this boy. Get him some good whiskey…
“Say,” he said, “you look like you might be in the horse business…am I right?”
“No,” I said. “I’m a photographer.”
“Oh yeah?” He eyed my ragged leather bag with new interest. “Is that what you got there — cameras? Who you work for?”
“Playboy,” I said.
He laughed. “Well goddam! What are you gonna take pictures of — nekkid horses? Haw! I guess you’ll be workin’ pretty hard when they run the Kentucky Oaks. That’s a race jut for fillies.” He was laughing wildly. “Hell yes! And they’ll all be nekkid too!”
What do you infer about “Jimbo”? What sort of person might he be, based on this snippet of his dialogue with Thompson? What might you infer about the Kentucky Derby itself from this snippet of dialogue? Again, here’s dialogue doing a lot of work to carry a story.
Mary Mazur, 61, set off near midnight to buy her Thanksgiving turkey. She took her plant with her. “He doesn’t like to be left alone,” she later explained. The plant rode in a white cart, Mary in her wheelchair. With only one hand to wheel herself, the other on the cart, she’d push the left wheel forward, switch hands, push the right. Left, right, cursing, until a sweet girl found her, and wheeled her into Crown Fried Chicken. “Do not forget my plant!” she shouted at the girl. I held the door.
A woman so loyal to her plant that she takes “him” out with her. This is an intriguing dialogue snippet that helps to show us what kind of person Mary is. It piques our curiosity and compels us to read further. Through the piece, Sharlett uses dialogue to great effect to help us learn a little bit about and get to know Mary.
And now, over to you
Which bits of dialogue have stuck with you over time — those quotes that evoke meaning in a story? Share them with us in the comments.