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Through Tom Chiarella’s book, Writing Dialogue, I learned how to classify my dialogue–bloated–and how to correct it:  “strip it to the barest bones.  Cut everything.” (p. 63)  Chiarella gave examples. One example sounded just like my writing 😦

Here’s what his chapter on compression told me to change:

  • Interrupt – cut the other off
  • Complete another speaker’s sentences
  • Repeat each other
  • Change the subject, briefly or completely

This is very different from how I have been writing. My background is exclusively in writing reports, essays and letters for business and for college. It’s a huge challenge for me to write fiction dialogue (or non-fiction storytelling) that sucks readers in and compels them to become  one with a character or two.

I would be eternally grateful for your feedback on the 800 word piece I just finished. Your suggestions might even help me sound less foolish as I read it to the G.R. Writers’ Group this week. [I will even give points for valid suggestions…OK, that’s the teacher in me; students will do almost anything for a few points. Will you?] Here it is:

Peeling An Onion

 “What are ya doing, sis?” was Vicky’s opening line. “I’m at the emergency room with Mom, but I can’t stay. Can you come at least by two? ”

I paused before agreeing. Maybe I should lie and say I’d be heartbroken if this was it. Maybe I’m pathetic and heartless, but I don’t believe animosity is a natural state. It’s earned.

Vicky continued, “This is a strange one. Mom’s out of her mind this time. She doesn’t know…”

“What? What brought this on?  Did she have another stroke? Is she conscious?”

“Yeah, she’s conscious and everything seems to be working. She just has no clue what’s going on. Dad said she got up in the middle of the night, got him up, got herself dressed and started breakfast.”

“Why is eating at odd hours or all hours so unusual for them?”

“Dad called me first thing this morning, crying.”

I quit staring at the drained pool, the focal point of the view from my window, and sat down. “What? I never saw him cry in my whole life!”

“Me, neither. That’s why I came right over. He said he’d been up all night with her. Said he kept trying to persuade her it wasn’t morning. Even pulling back the blinds didn’t help. Dad said she’d pull out some breakfast things, start to eat, but then get up and clear the table. He said she’d done this at least three times in a row. And that was around 3 a.m.”

“OK, Sis, I’ll get ready. Do the doctors know why?”

“They think it could be the newest prescription. Mom’s doctor wanted to try something else for her dizziness.”

“Oh, yeah, she told me that yesterday, but she was her normal self when I talked to her at suppertime.  Didn’t ask about my week. Complained about her aches and pains and about Dad. The usual. How long before they expect her to be back to normal?”

“No word on that yet. The tests will show if it’s from a stroke. Just don’t expect her to make sense when you get here. You might as well bring a book.”

When I got to the hospital, I stopped at the nurses’ station before going to Mom’s room. “Is she still acting crazy?” I rather jokingly asked the familiar nurse in her early thirties. Last time she had been remarkably patient with Mom’s complaining. I wouldn’t have been so kind. After all, doctors and techs don’t just forget about a patient during x-rays, contrary to my mother’s insinuation.

“Uh huh. Your mother thinks she’s at home, but she’s being very sweet. A little while ago she told me to take a nap. She said I must be tired from visiting her so much.”

My mother said that?”

“She did. You might try to get her to finish her supper. I don’t think your father will want the rest of her dinner roll and milk, do you?”

I just rolled my eyes and went in. My mother’s hair was disheveled, her covers kicked off revealing too much of an eighty-four-year-old body, but her eyes had an unusual twinkle.

“Hey Mom, I see you didn’t finish your supper. Don’t you like what they brought? Maybe you can order something else.”

“Oh no, it’s very good, especially the soup. I’m saving some for your dad. Take the rest of this cookie. I know you like Chocolate Chip.”
“No, Mom, I don’t want your cookie. Why don’t you finish it with your milk?’

“Where’s your Dad? Oh, he’s probably in the garage. You know he likes to monkey around out there. Try to get him to come in to eat.”

“He’s not here, Mom. Do you know where you are?”

“I’ve been trying to fold these blankets but I can’t seem to get the edges even. Those nice ladies are trying to help, but they’re really not too good at household chores.” She picked up a wrinkled corner of a sheet, evidently to show me their work, and giggled.

Then she said something really funny, I mean something good enough to be a line for a comedian. This from my mother, the un-comedian! I can’t remember a time she ever consciously tried to make us laugh…or happy. Then we both laughed, the hearty, tear-inducing kind. And something dissolved in me.

“I’ll be sure to straighten up the house before your dad’s released. If he saw it this way, he might think…. Oh, before I forget, will you turn out those two outside lights when you leave, please?”

The next day my mother left the hospital, her mind revived. But during those few hours of drug-induced craziness, I met a woman with compassion and humor, words I had never associated with my mother.

When the last call comes, I’ll miss her.

Comments on: "Writing Engaging Dialogue" (2)

  1. I haven’t been at the writer’s group for that long, but I’ve already seen an improvement in your writing. There is a quote I really like: “Failure is not the falling down, but the staying down.” Writing is a process. One can only improve if one continues to write through the discouraging moments as well as the enlightened ones.
    Keep it up!


  2. Destiny Manning said:

    I really like this short story; it is very relatable and instantly made me think of my great-grandmother. I also like how the dialogue is more realistic to someone who may not be taking the situations as seriously, meaning there is always that one person who tries making bad situations into funny ones.
    The one thing that I did not like was that I kind of felt like I wanted more at the end, I wanted to know what happened with their mom. I know not all movies or books have perfect endings but I expected one here.
    All in all I think this story is awesome, really cute and touching. It is a great story that instantly makes you think of your loved ones and reminisce about your good times or bad. Great job Joyce! 🙂


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