By Virginia Parker Staat
Say what you have to say, not what you ought. Any truth is better than make-believe. Tom Hyde, the tinker, standing on the gallows, was asked if he had anything to say. “Tell the tailors,” said he, “to remember to make a knot in their thread before they take their first stitch.” His companion’s prayer is forgotten.
~ Henry David Thoreau from Walden
Being a native Texan in Alaska in August has distinct disadvantages. We would have been in shorts and sweating at home. Instead we braved 38 degrees and misty rain. Within ten minutes of setting up on Denali’s park road, David and I were wearing every available piece of clothing, wistfully hoping slender tripods might block at least the brunt of the brutal wind. No such luck. We stood on hard pavement, toes numbing in our boots, watching a tangle of velveted antlers visible just above the alders. We waited for the great beast to rise…. and waited.
As our vigilance continued, a Pennsylvania fellow dropped by for the third time and asked me, “How long you gonna wait?”
“As long as it takes, I suppose,” I said, noticeably shivering within my down parka.
Perhaps it was pity’s sake that moved him. “I’ll get him up,” he said.
My protests ignored, the man walked straight into the alders as cavalier as if he were approaching a prairie dog. Photographers who had begun packing their gear repositioned along the roadside. Others spoke loudly about the man’s apparent stupidity. Still others of us prayed.
The moose did rise… actually two moose, lying side by side. Then the third bull rose from his position several feet behind them. The startled man began quickly backtracking. Thankfully, the bulls simply eyed him with contempt.
At the sight of three bulls, one photographer exclaimed to his companion, “This is epic!”
A towheaded boy, shoulders hunched around his ears, said, “Dad, we’ve seen these already. Let’s go. It’s cold!”
The Pennsylvania fellow returned and asked, “How about fifty dollars?”
Dialogue is one of the most important characterization tools in a writer’s arsenal. John Murray writes, “Dialogue is one of the two major means by which character is revealed, in literature as well as in life. The other is action. Both involve decisions. In the case of dialogue, character is revealed by how we inquire, represent ourselves, interact with other people, respond to events and relate to nature.”
Dialogue can be an important tool in outdoor writing, although we often see dialogue used more sparingly in nature writing than in fiction prose. It is most often used as an opening, closing, or transitional device. Dialogue also reveals action or advances the story.
Outdoor writers, when writing from personal experience, often include dialogue to further characterize a situation or point of view. By combining dialogues with our writing, we can also use them as symbolism, metaphor, allegory, or imagery. As an example, Edward Abbey uses dialogue to punctuate his otherwise monastic life in his essay, Fire Lookout. Terry Tempest Williams uses dialogue with her dying mother as metaphor to the dying Bear River Migratory Bird Sanctuary in Refuge.
The danger comes when we invent dialogue to move our piece along. As soon as that happens, our writing strays from the realm of nonfiction to creative nonfiction. So how do we include true dialogue in nonfiction? Unless we are privy to the conversation, research is our single best tool. It is important to allow our subjects to speak for themselves. To find their spoken words, we often must scour archives and meticulously source those quotes in the manuscript’s back matter.
When writing creative nonfiction or a personal narrative, dialogue can add richness to our work, propelling our readers along, immersing them deeper into our story by adding tension, humor, or an identifying hook. Writing convincing dialogue is a true art form. Both Eudora Welty and Mark Twain were so focused on the importance of dialogue that they kept notebooks of overheard conversations to use in their stories. I also keep a collection of dialogue snippets in a fancy wooden cigar box on my bookshelf. I particularly like conversations between children, exchanges overheard at coffee shops or while standing in line, and old wives’ tales that my grandmother would say. I return to these bits of conversation time and again to remember the exact expressions and context of these priceless spoken words. Often they become the launching point for a story idea.
There are several techniques to help your dialogue writing. Self-talk allows you to check its flow and tempo. After writing several lines of dialogue, read it aloud. Listen for clarity and authenticity. Compare the dialogue with the personality traits of your character.
To help your readers navigate through written conversations, properly punctuate your dialogue. The rules are simple. Begin a new paragraph each time a speaker changes. All punctuation is contained within the quotes. When using multiple paragraphs for a single speaker, place an open-quotation at the beginning of each paragraph and a close-quotation mark only at the end of the final paragraph. Keep speaker tabs simple, using said and ask unless you have a distinct purpose in using a more expressive tag. He said becomes invisible to your readers and doesn’t distract from the dialogue’s flow. Speaker beats, short phrases that show action, should be used sparingly.
Dialogue advances plot and communicates personality. It adds richness and texture, quickening the pace of our stories. It illuminates our characters, sets tone, and creates atmosphere. Finally, dialogue can be used as a metaphor, allowing readers to understand our point of view and experience our story more fully. In short, incorporating dialogue into our writing can speak volumes to our readers.