Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Birthing the Mother Writer Class 4: The Roll/Role of Dialogue in Fiction

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"I love you."

"Where are you going?"

"I have some news."

You might remember, or maybe you have done it with your own children, pretending to be a log, tucking in your arms against your side, pulling the muscles of your legs tight together, and rolling down a hill.

The flash of perspective, if you keep your eyes open, is part of the thrill of the game. First you see the light from the sky, then the ground below, over and over.

When you use dialogue in fiction, your writing becomes the log that rolls like this. It quickens the pace for the reader. Flashes of insight from the character reveal themselves, one after another in rapid succession.

This happens for a few reasons. First, dialogue is fast to read on the page. The white space allows the reader's eyes to move quickly, and so the pace of the action in the reader's mind picks up speed.

Second, dialogue allows change to happen quickly for the characters themselves. Some fiction teachers will tell you that fiction is created out of conflict, but I prefer to think of change as the essential element. We go into a story or a novel to see the choices a character makes and we vicariously live through their choices and imagine the possibilities for change in our own lives.

Choices create change, and change creates consequences. This is a shorthand way of understanding plot.

And in dialogue, such choices and changes and consequences happen right in front of us on the page.

The third reason dialogue works to roll the narrative along has to do with truth. Unlike the characters, readers can often tell the difference between what the characters reveal to each other through speech and the deeper truth of their minds. This creates tension and allows us as readers, again, to engage emotionally with the interior of our own minds.

"I love you," she said. But her face was angry.

"Where are you going?" he asked, not looking up from his computer screen.

"I have some news," the uniformed man at her door told her, and she knew her life had changed.

As readers, we gain knowledge about characters in the space between what they say and the actions of their bodies, motions of their faces, and glimpses into the inner workings of their minds and hearts.

We don't always have this insight into ourselves or the people in our lives in real life. We allow ourselves not to pay attention. Or we silence the voice within that tries to reveal a deeper truth. We do this out of politeness, or habit, or fear.

In fiction, we give our readers the opportunity to face the truth within themselves. This is the role of dialogue. In the contrast between what characters say and their interior truth, dialogue's role is like a surgeon's scalpel, cutting out the cancer of convention.

The poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote: "What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? / The world would split open."

Those lines appear in the title poem of Rukeyser's 1968 collection, The Speed of Darkness. We might think of this title as a meditation on dialogue itself, which comes from the dark places within us and, like light, has the speed to change ourselves and the world around us.

The final lines of the poem are: "Who will speak these days, / if not I, / if not you?"

These could have been the words in the head of Literary Mama's founder, Amy Hudock, when she envisioned a place for mothers to speak—in poetry, fiction, and non-fiction—more than ten years ago. And they are the words I ask you, today.

Time is rolling away. You will never be the age you are now, your children will never be this age again, the particular vision you have of the world will change, and what will happen if you do not speak—and let your characters speak—the truth of their lives?

Here is my challenge to you:

Create a character who habitually lies. (It doesn't have to be a mother. It could be a father, or a child, or a person in power.)

Create a character who tries to tell the truth.

Put them in a room together.

Let them speak.

See what is revealed.

See what splits open.

When you've finished, I invite you to submit a short story of 700-1000 words that shows an adept use of dialogue. This is due March 29, but feel free to submit it earlier. Please note the guidelines for submission below.

Go. Time is rolling away. And you have a role to play.


Birthing the Mother Writer Class Syllabus (with "Due Dates!")

Photo credit: Susanne Kappler

Here is the syllabus of the class for the next year so you can look ahead and think through the genres, elements, and themes we are covering. And, just as you had a due date for the arrival of your baby, we've got them, too—for your writing for the Birthing the Mother Writer Class! Below are the submission deadlines for your writing. Feel free to send things in early (just like some babies come early!) Pay particular attention to the submission guidelines at the bottom. I look forward to reading your writing and I'm so glad you're in this class!

Unit 1: Poetry


Unit 2: Fiction


Unit 3: Creative Non-Fiction

  • May—The Spectrum of Creative Non-Fiction
  • June—Reader Response to The Spectrum of Creative Non-Fiction (Submit a creative non-fiction piece of 700-1000 words that exemplifies the qualities of a good essay. Due May 31, 2015.)
  • July and August—Summer Break
  • September—Life is a Book
  • October—Reader Response to Life is a Book (Submit a memoir piece of 700-1000 words developed from old journal entries. Due October 4, 2015.)



Reader Response Submission Guidelines

Please email your submission to me at birthingmotherwriter (at) gmail (dot) com by the due dates listed above. Be sure to do the following:

-Put BMW and the month of your submission in the subject line of the email. For example, if you are submitting writing for February’s column, your subject line should read “BMW February.”

-Include a brief bio of up to 50 words.

-Place both the bio and the text of your submission in the body of the email. By sending in your submission, you agree that your writing, if chosen for publication, may receive suggestions for revision, and you also agree to revise and submit a new version for publication within five days.

Cassie Premo Steele, Ph.D. is the author of 13 books, most recently Earth Joy Writing. The book includes writing prompts for every month of the year, plus audio meditations and video workshops. She teaches an innovative online course combining mindfulness and feminist theory for women academics called The Feminar. Cassie is currently working on a memoir about how coming out returned her to her mother and her faith.

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