35. Creative Nonfiction Part 3: Reconstructed Dialogue

Author: Nola Published: about 2 years ago.
Tags: dialogue, speech, nonfiction, scenes Category: Writing tips

Last week, I referred to Anna Elkins’ award-winning essay Of Danger and Beauty about her travels in Israel. It’s well worth reading it to see how she builds up her story using scenes. However, she also uses a number of creative writing tools to enliven the story. Consider her use of dialogue in the following extract:

I looked at the tent. “The sky cleared. Do we need it?”
Tsach asked a question back. “Want to go for a walk?”
… we walked through another small valley into a larger one, lined on one side by a ravine and trees, dim now in the darkness. As if in answer to my previous question, Tsach pointed to a pair of eyes glowing at the top of the ravine. He snapped on his headlamp and the eyes disappeared, followed by a black form slinking, feline, into the trees.
“Did you see it? There are large cats here, what do you call them? Not cougars …”
“Panthers?”
“Maybe.” He turned off the light. Suddenly, I was willing to acquiesce to the imaginary shield of a tent.

She could have just said they pitched a tent because there were wild cats in the area, but the dialogue helps put us in the situation. Cate Macabe provides a great list of tips for crafting realistic dialogue. Also see my post on speech tags. However, using dialogue in nonfiction poses special problems. What do you do if you’re writing about a past event for which there is no audio or video recording? Won’t that involve making up some of the lines? If so, doesn’t that mean it’s no longer accurate?

According to Gutkind, it’s important to be ‘true to your story, true to your characters, true to yourself’ (p. 37). Readers understand that you didn’t tape record that conversation with your mother 20 years ago. However, reconstructed dialogue should be authentic in its depiction of memories, the available facts and the manner of speech used by the people involved. In some cases you may be able to interview others to check their recollections, though people can remember the same events differently. Melanie Faith provides a great rule of thumb for reconstructed dialogue: ‘some compression or restructuring is fine as long as the general gist contains literal and/or emotional truth, but outright making up or deceiving to flatter the self is never okay and takes an essay from the realm of nonfiction to fiction’.

Even when you do have a recording of a conversation, you can’t just plonk the transcript on paper and expect it to grab your readers. Macabe notes that you still have to summarise, add dialogue tags or actions, cut filler words such as ‘um’ and ‘ah’, and break it up with other relevant information. Remember it’s all about story. Just because it’s true doesn’t mean it has to be boring.

Do you have a perspective on ethical issues in reconstructing events and conversations? I’d be interested in your comments.

(N.B. Some of the content of this blog appeared in my previous post on Australasian Christian Writers)

Sources:

Elkins, A. Of Danger and Beauty. Retrieved from http://travelerstales.com/carpet/002852.shtml

Faith, M. Three Literary Tools for Crafting Creative Nonfiction. Retrieved from http://myemail.constantcontact.com/Three-Literary-Tools-for-Crafting-Creative-Nonfiction.html?soid=1101417136261&aid=iJaD41EFhcg#LETTER.BLOCK7

Gutkind, L. (2012). You can’t make this stuff up: The complete guide to writing creative nonfiction from memoir to literary journalism and everything in between. Boston, MA: Da Capo Press.

Macabe, C. Writing a Memoir Like a Novel: Dialogue. Retrieved from http://thisnewmountain.com/2013/04/12/writing-a-memoir-like-a-novel-dialogue/

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