CNF 101: Dialogue

CNF 101: Dialogue


We are in the car, Hadley, Harper, Harper’s friend, and I, listening to the Mamma Mia soundtrack while driving to their dance class when “Dancing Queen” comes on. Harper and her friend squeal and begin to sing along with Meryl Streep, Christina Baranski, and Julie Walters.

“Wait,” Harper interrupts. “How do you know this song?”

“It’s a popular song,” her friend says bopping her head from side to side.

“Yeah, but you haven’t seen the movie,” Harper states.

“So? I know the song.”

The two seem to be at an impasse, and I am fearful a perfectly good song is going to waste, but then it’s as though Meryl Streep has stepped into the car, put her arms around both of them, and reminds them that it doesn’t matter how they know the song. What matters is they can dance. They can jive. They can have the time of their lives. The young dancing queens flip their ponytails, shoot up their microphone thumbs, and sing along.

“So I’m in this huge game of Truth or Dare,” Hadley tells me. She’s sitting in the front seat, something I am having a hard time coming to terms with. Hadley’s holding her phone and texting with her thumb while she tells me about Truth or Dare, and I’m thinking, Lord in Heaven I’m about to live an ABC After School Special. Truth or Dare was no joke in the 80s and 90s when I was growing up, surely the game has advanced tenfold by now.

“Oh, yeah?” I say sounding about as casual as if Hadley just told me she’s considering taking advantage of the fact that marijuana is now legal in Ann Arbor.

“Yeah, and I lost and look at what I have to have on my phone now?”

She shoves her phone in my face. There’s a picture of a boy with a wig of curly, long hair on his head. “That’s Johnny,” she tells me, laughing. “He stole his mom’s wig and wore it to school.”

Meryl Streep gets to the part about the night being young, and the music being high, when Hadley says, “All day.”

“What?” I ask.

“Johnny wore the wig all day, Mom.” Hadley looks at me, her blue eyes bright with awe, with humor, with – sweet baby Jesus, could it be love? Does Hadley have a crush on a boy who stole his mama’s wig?

“You’re in the mood for a dance,” Meryl teases. “And when you get the chance….”

I skip to the next song.

“What Did It Have To Be Me” comes on, and both Hadley and Harper hoot and holler and bop their heads with what almost seems like vengeance.

“When you were lonely, you needed a man,” Josh Dylan begins.

“What’s this song about?” Harper’s friend asks.

Harper stops signing and gives an explanation. “Well, they’re on a boat,” she begins.

“Who’s on a boat?”

“Lily James and Josh Dylan.”

“Who are they?”

“Young Donna and young Bill.”


“The people on the boat.”

“Right, Harper, I want to know who the people on the boat are.”

“I just told you.”

Harper’s friend is not satisfied. “I’m gonna need more of a back story to enjoy this song,” she tells her.

Meanwhile, Hadley shows me a meme of a man in a Speedo who should not be wearing a Speedo dabbing while simultaneously throwing himself on a slip-n-slide.

“Ew! What is that?” I scream. “Did you lose at Truth or Dare again?”

“No,” Hadley laughs. “I sent this to Chris because I scored a goal against him and he said I’d never be able to do that.”

“And this is what you sent him?”

“Uh huh!” Hadley says. “Here, I’ll send it to you.”

“I don’t think that’s necessary. I am pretty sure I’ll never be able to unsee that.”

“Too late. Just sent it,” Hadley says, still grinning.

Harper and her friend chatter in the back seat while Hadley continues to tell me the other consequences she and her friends suffer as a result of playing Truth or Dare. She’s animated – talking with her hands, looking at me to make sure I’m paying attention – and I realize that the fun in Truth or Dare is not in the winning. It’s in the losing.

I drop the girls off at the dance studio, and head to a coffee shop in the hopes of getting a little writing done while they dance. It’s quiet in the coffee shop, though, something I prefer but today something is missing, and it’s difficult to get started. The story I thought I would write doesn’t seem as interesting as the lyrics to Mamma Mia, or the intricacies of Truth of Dare.

In weakness, I check my phone. I have fifteen new texts, all of them from Hadley. She’s sent me the Speedo Slip-n-Slide man fifteen times. “You’re welcome,” is her last text to me.

Smiling, I decide I might have something to write about after all.

Try It:

In Tell It Slant, Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola write that “dialogue must characterize and capture the voice of the speaker, however, not simply give information.”

In the above piece, I try to capture the personalities of my daughters, and their friend, using their voices. Sitting in a car with your children is a great place to try this.

Another good exercise is to highlight dialogue in works of Creative Nonfiction, and then ask yourself the following questions:

Does the dialogue move the story forward?
What does the dialogue reveal about the character(s)?
How would the story change if the dialogue weren’t there?

This month, play around with dialogue in your writing. See not just what you, but others, have to say.

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