“The real miracle of individuation and reclamation of the Wild Woman is that we all begin the process before we are ready, before we are strong enough, before we know enough; we begin a dialogue with thoughts and feeling that both tickle and thunder within us. We respond before we know how to speak the language, before we know the answers, and before we know exactly to whom we are speaking.”
- Clarissa Pinkola Estes
At the NESCBWI conference, I attended a workshop called “Dialogue as an Agent of Change” taught by Liza Ketchum*. When I signed up for the conference, I thought, Do I really need to take a workshop on dialogue? I’ve been told to work on grammar, sentence variety, and show, not tell. My dialogue is decent. But of the other choices, this one appealed to me the most. Besides, even if my dialogue is good, I can always make it better.
The workshop wound up being better than I’d imagined. I don’t recall whether she was quoting or it was in her own words but Ms. Ketchum made some valid assertions:
Dialogue is like salt for the palate. We take it for granted but miss it when it’s not there.
It’s the spine of the story. It holds us up and channels a story like nerves.
Dialogue reveals character. It’s THE way to nail character.
It’s also a great way to show the story’s conflict. You don’t have to use adverbs to show emotion.
And it gives the eyes a rest from paragraphs.
After many more morsels of dialogue wisdom and examples from actual books, the attendees were told to get into groups of three for a dialogue exercise. I got in a group of three. Each of us had to write eight to ten character traits of our protagonist. Then we had to exchange our lists. My job was to write a monologue based on this glimpse of someone else’s protagonist.
Here’s what the writer wrote about her main character (MC):
Girl is 6
Jumps off swing sets
Plays imaginary games
Has goldfish crumbs in the corner of her mouth
Knows her ABC’s
Picks Play-Doh from under her fingernail
Big brown eyes, tiny mouth
Then, incorporating as many traits as possible, I had ten minutes to turn this into a monologue. Here’s what I came up with:
“I’m six-years-old, but in one month I’ll be six-and-a-half, but we don’t have a party like for whole birthdays. Yesterday, I played with Terry on the swings to see who could jump the farthest, but he cheated he rolled after we landed but he didn’t tell the truth, so then I wouldn’t talk to him for the rest of the day.
“He’s so annoying because he calls me ‘Twig legs’. And he’s a showoff because he can say his ABC’s backwards. Big deal. I do mine the right way and that’s all the teacher cares about. And he’s so bossy, always getting to be the cop when we play cops and robbers. Next time, I’m gonna get to pick first. And if he pulls my pigtails when I tell him, I’m gonna knock him down.”
Okay, it’s not Shakespeare. But it was fun. I could see and hear the protagonist.
It was cool to hear what the writer came up with from my MC (Eve from The Disappearances). After the three of us finished our monologues and read them to one another, we had to write dialogue based on the interactions of our three characters. In addition, someone came around and revealed a secret motivation of our protagonists that we should try to slip into the dialogue.
When we were done, my group volunteered to go up and act out our parts. The fact that I not only agreed to go up, but it was actually my idea, so I coaxed the others was HUGE for me. No pain, no gain. Right? In my humble opinion, we were AWESOME.
I’ve often said that I couldn’t write on command. It had to be my idea I was interested in shaping or there would be no story to tell. The workshop taught me that I am able to write on command.
Recently, I saw a commercial on Bravo for some TV show where artists will have to create art to win. The channel had done it for cooking, interior design, hair, and fashion design, but…. ART?
After attending the workshop, I think maybe it is possible.
*Here’s Liza’s website: