Welcome to Following the Whispers blog

Thank you so much for taking the time to visit. Hope you enjoy your stay. I blog here whenever I feel the need. This blog was created at the time my memoir came out, in February, 2009. Its motto was: creating a life of inner peace and self-acceptance from the depths of despair. Now, my focus is sharing this journey we call life.

“Only one thing is more frightening than speaking your truth, and that is not speaking it.” Naomi Wolf

“We are called human beings, not human doings.” Wes Nisker, Buddhist teacher

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs…(And) if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.” Theodore Roosevelt

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A Powerful Way to Add Zip to Your Stories

A Powerful Way to Add Zip to Your Stories
By Sharon Lippincott

“What is the single most effective thing you can do to add zip to your stories?”

This question recently came up in a lifestory writing class I teach. My answer was simple.

“Dialogue!” I firmly declared. “It’s a powerful way to show your characters instead of telling about them. It adds variety and zest, and gets readers involved in the action.”

Many writers avoid dialogue altogether or tiptoe around it, using it sparingly and with great caution. Some believe the myth that you have to be born with a gift or ear for it. Others are uncertain about the technicalities. I have good news. The myth is false. While it is true that richly colorful dialogue does come more easily to some than others, it is a skill. With a little research on technique and lots of practice it can be learned like other skills.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle for memoir writers is the fear of a memory slip that puts the wrong words in someone else’s mouth.

“How on earth can I possibly remember what Aunt Jessie actually said on a specific day when I was seven? That was fifty-eight years ago.” one woman asked. “Nobody would believe me.”

In four words: don’t worry about it. Make it up. Write what you think she probably said. The reasoning behind this advice is three-fold:

1. If you don’t recall the exact words, nobody else will either.
2. If you write dialogue with confidence and conviction, expressing the truth of the occasion to the best of your recollection, the power of your personal truth will overshadow reader doubts.
3. Memoir is about what you remember, and your memories are what shape your life and who you are far more than “what really happened.” Things like dates and places can be verified, but the literal transcript of a conversation is not one of them. Research shows that within hours, memory begins to fade.
4. This is your story. Claim it and defend it. If others disagree with what you’ve written, gently suggest they write their own versions.

So much for the Truth in Memoir objections. Now, grab your favorite pen or keyboard and get those fingers moving. Write a story that involves some interaction and fill it with dialogue. Use slang, colloquialisms, and all the other things we generally edit out of narrative, but do skip the uhms and ers. Write it real, write it true to the characters as you remember them, and immortalize them on the page. If you want to continue to polish your skills, Google around. Answers abound. Join a writing group, in your hometown or on the web. And closely study the way your favorite authors use dialogue. Your stories will soon be bursting at the seams with zip and vitality.

Sharon Lippincott is passionate about all forms of life writing, especially memoir and journaling. She has been teaching lifestory writing in southwestern Pennsylvania for ten years and teaches a series of teleclasses on Description, Dialogue, and Wordcraft through the National Association of Memoir (NAMW) writers. Her book, THE HEART AND CRAFT OF LIFESTORY WRITING has helped thousands create a written legacy of their lives.

Sharon will be teaching a class on writing dialogue for NAMW: "How to Write Dynamic Dialogue": Wednesday, August 26. Sign-up link: http://snurl.com/qm5s9
You can also find Sharon at her website: http://heartandcraft.blogspot.com/


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I hadn't thought about it before, but I can see where it would be daunting to write dialogue for a memoir. My memory is very faulty and I think I'd worry about accuracy. You've made a great point--memoirs are about what we REMEMBER...not about absolute, indisputable fact.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Tabitha Bird said...

great comments. I actually am one of those freakish people who remembers almost word for words what others have said. Even years afterwards. But I also asked myself this question when writing my memoir. How sure was I that I was getting it right. In the end I decided that it was my very best approximation and the point was the spirit of what was said no the exact wording. But thanks for actually saying that. I had wondered...

Can you get sued over that though? Just wondering.

Stephanie Faris said...

I was thinking about this this morning. I've been reading a young adult/middle grade book by an Edgar-award-winning author and her prose is beautiful. I was thinking, "My prose isn't like that." I'm VERY dialogue-heavy. I wondered if I should fix that but maybe that's what gives my writing its zip? I don't know...MOST books I read are more along the lines of what I write...tons of dialogue and action with minimal description of surroundings but this woman's writing was so beautiful it made me long to write more like that!

The Old Silly said...

Hey great stuff from Sharon! Thanks for sharing. I agree also - if you can't remember it vividly enough nobody else will either.

Marvin D Wilson

Helen Ginger said...

Since I don't write memoir, I hadn't thought about the accuracy of dialogue. But it makes sense that you have to get it as close as you remember while still making the "character" of the person come through. And I can see how you might take what was in reality a 30 minute rambling discourse and condense it into 3 minutes.

Straight From Hel

Sharon Lippincott said...

Elizabeth, why not give it a try as an experiment? You'll probably surprise yourself. It's a lot like learning to ride a bike. You can't ride with no hands until you learn to balance.

Sharon Lippincott said...


You can get sued for anything, but if you did get sued, it would not likely be due to dialogue. The meat of the matter would be that the person didn't like the message. One woman I know of was sued by her stepfather for reporting something that appeared in court records. Even though the judge threw the case out, he is still appealing. Sad! The book made it clear that she held him in high esteem.

Sharon Lippincott said...


There is a balance point, and it's different for each author. That gamut ranges from none (likely to be dull) to screen plays. This is a deliciously complex topic, and one I cover in some detail in my class.

Sharon Lippincott said...


Memoir dialogue differs from fiction only in the matter of accuracy. Both forms use the same tools for writing dynamic dialogue. If it wouldn't work in fiction, it won't work in memoir.

Sharon Lippincott said...


Great to hear the support. ;-]

Patricia Stoltey said...

I guess I've always taken dialogue for granted when reading memoir, assuming the author is taking liberties with memory. It seems no one could remember every detail of last week, much less fifty years ago. But memoir without dialogue would be too boring, wouldn't it?

Galen Kindley--Author said...

Oh, how right you are. I'm doing some revision and I perk right up when the dialogue starts...to the point of forgetting to revise! Exposition comes along, and I slow down. So, yeah, good point.

Best Regards, Galen
Imagineering Fiction Blog

Maryann Miller said...

What a great post. Dialogue does bring a story to life like nothing else. It's like we are sitting there eavesdropping on a real conversation.

And one thing to keep in mind is that we don't want to write the way people really talk, so it isn't necessary to write word for word the conversations. I learned early in a scriptwriting class that the way people really talk is boring -- all those pleasantries and fillers. Hello, how are you, fine thank you.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

I love writing dialogue! It's my favorite part of the story.

L. Diane Wolfe “Spunk On A Stick”

Sharon Lippincott said...

How exciting to read all the comments. I love that this topic generates so much buzz. One of the best ways to hone dialogue writing skills is to discretely eavesdrop on actual conversations and pay more attention to patterns of speech and interaction than content. As Maryann points out, most of it will be boring, and you'll learn what to filter out. Memoir writers will want to pay close attention to speech mannerisms of family members.

Karen Walker said...

Thank you Sharon for writing such a stimulating post. And thanks all of you who stopped by and left a comment or a question. If you get a chance, tune in to Sharon's class tonight. I'm sure there will be more great tips on writing dialogue, applicable to both fiction and memoir.

Garret Gillespie said...

I was struggling with accuracy working with my own memoir some time ago and my wife wisely admonished, "Own your memories. Regardless of their accuracy, they're what has determined the choices you've made in your life." She's right and this post frees me up to engage the dialog I've resisted. Thanks


Sharon Lippincott said...


Does your wife play bingo? She has a winning card with that advice. Bravo for you for recognizing her wisdom.

Jody Hedlund said...

Wonderful post!! Dialogue shouldn't be "real life" even in fiction. We need to write more colorfully and more expressively if we hope to communicate the picture/story in a way our readers can connect to. I'm sure that holds true to memoirs too.

Sharon Lippincott said...


The key difference between memoir and fiction, whether it's dialogue or any other writing tool, is adherence to remaining true to memory and perception in memoir. Techniques, like dialogue or metaphor that enhance the sense of how things were, even if not quite literally "true" are sanctioned. Beyond that, memoir writers are well advised to take lots of lessons from fiction writing techniques like plotting, scenes, story line, dialogue, description....

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