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How to Develop Convincing Dialogue in Your Travel Writing

by David Miller Oct 23, 2007

TRAVEL IS ALL ABOUT dialogue and interaction between characters.

Too often though, beginning travel writers focus exclusively on one character (the narrator), with little effort made at capturing others’ voices.

For example, a beginning writer will describe a place, say a pueblo in Mexico, then add a brief dialogue:

“Hola,” said the man. “How are you?”
“Muy bien,” I said.

And that’s it. The writer will go back to describing his or her adventures.

The #1 easiest way to improve your travel writing is to pay attention to the way your characters sound and try to capture their individual voices. In other words, make the effort to write strong dialogue.

Dialogue Serves Multiple Functions

In the example of shallow dialogue above, the conversation served only a single function, which was to advance the story through an exchange, an interaction. Good dialogue, besides advancing the story, always performs secondary functions.

Here are a few possibilities.

Tell Backstory

“What happened?”
“Nothing,” she says. “Not a goddamn thing. Story of my life. Meet a guy at a bar and carry him home so he can pass out on my bed.”

–Jay McInerny, Bright Lights, Big City>

In this case the dialogue not only reveals the immediate backstory of what happened the night before-the narrator got drunk and passed out-but gives a glimpse of the extended backstory – “Story of my life” – of one of the characters.

Portray Action

Example 1. A doctor is examining the narrator’s wounds:

“Fragments of enemy trench-mortar shell. Now I’ll probe for some of this…Does that sting? Good, that’s nothing to how it will feel later. The pain hasn’t started yet. Bring him a glass of brandy…”

–Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

Example 2. The Narrator is trying to get his little brother Toph to get ready:

“Toph, let’s go.”
“To the hospital.”
“For a checkup.”
“Do I have to go?”
“Why? I can stay with Beth.”
“Beth’s coming with.”
“I can stay alone.”
“No, you can’t.”
“Because you can’t.”
“But why?”
“Jesus, Toph, get up here!”

–Dave Eggers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Provide description / information

“What did the ordinary houses look like?”
“Like this house-built from mud, but the rooms were very small and crowded, and many of them were multistoried, perhaps because they were built on such a steep cliff. . . ”

–Rory Stewart, The Places in Between

Express Emotion:

“What’s so goddamned funny?” Austin said to the snug little subcontinental. “Why’s my bad luck a source of such goddamned amusement to you?”

–Richard Ford, “The Womanizer”

Bring It All Together

Notice how in a single bit of dialogue it’s possible to perform ALL of the secondary functions simultaneously:

Patti said, “You don’t care if I take vitamins. That’s the point. You don’t care about anything. The windshield wiper quit this afternoon in the rain. I almost had a wreck. I came this close.”

–Raymond Carver, “Vitamins”

In this case we have emotion expressed, information / backstory given, and the last bit, “I came this close,” portrays action.

Practice, Practice, Pratice

Although it’s easy to begin adding layers to your dialogue, to truly do it well you have to go beyond simply writing and begin to change your listening habits as you travel.

Eavesdrop in cafes, restaurants and public buses. Notice the way people speak, the way they hide or express their emotions. Notice the things they do as they speak as well. What is their body language?

We’ll explore how to begin utilizing those elements-the actions around the dialogue-in the next edition of Literary Techniques For Travel Writers.

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