How to Create Depth of Time in Dialogue

13 Oct
A Chicago Tribune review called Debra Monroe's memoir, My Unsentimental Education, a genuine look at how "sometimes you go sideways or down before you go up."

A Chicago Tribune review called Debra Monroe’s memoir, My Unsentimental Education, “a genuine look at how ‘sometimes you go sideways or down before you go up.'”

Good prose isn’t tied to any moment, scene, or place. A passage may be set in a bar on Friday, but the prose can move to a park on Thursday if it wants. It’s this ability to hover and jump that makes a the language of a story or essay seem dynamic. If, at any moment, the writer can take us by the hand and leap, like Dickens’ Christmas ghosts, into another place and time, then we always quiver with just a bit of expectation: what will the writer do next? We’re used to this quality in narration, but skillful writers can achieve the same effect in dialogue.

A good example of dialogue that moves in and out of time can be found in Debra Monroe’s essay, “You’re in Trouble. Am I Right?” You can read it now at Longreads. It’s also included, in slightly longer and different form, in Monroe’s new memoir, My Unsentimental Education.

How the Essay Works

The essay is about Monroe’s experience as a young college student, struggling to find her way in a writing class and with a new boyfriend. At one point, after meeting the boy, she receives a call at the restaurant where she worked:

I was waiting tables one night when my boss, Kristine, called me to the phone. “Debra!” she said, accented, authoritarian. She was German. She’d married an American soldier during the Allied Occupation. She left the receiver uncovered. “It is a phone call from a boy!”

Here is what the boy says (after Monroe has expected to make a date for later in the week). Pay attention to how smoothly the passage moves in and out of time:

Tonight, he said. With Kristine listening I didn’t feel I could say I didn’t get off work until late and had class in the morning. I said I’d call him when I got home. I hung up. Kristine said: “Our poetess has an admirer.” She’d once seen notes I’d scrawled on a napkin. For what class? she’d asked. For a poem, I’d answered, embarrassed. Poetry was a private emission I couldn’t seem to stop. Wonderful, she’d said. And did I know the work of Gottfried Benn? I didn’t.

“Young people are naturally interested in opposite sex,” she said now. “But no more phonings at work.”

A couple of things are immediately noticeable:

  1. Some dialogue is put into quotation marks, and other dialogue is not. There is probably an editor out there with rules about this, but I don’t know them. The rules, if they exist, probably change depending on the circumstances. In this case, the dialogue from the past isn’t put into quotation marks, and the dialogue from the present is, with the exception of when the boy says, “Tonight.” A better way to look at this distinction (quotation marks versus no quote marks) might be this: the dialogue that reveals voice is put into quotation marks, which tend to highlight something, make it stand out. The less distinctive lines are not put set off in the same way.
  2. The present action vanishes. After Kristine says, “Our poetess has an admirer,” there is no attribution or description of scene before she next says, “Young people are naturally interested in opposite sex.” This is a sophisticated piece of craft. Even good writers fall into the tick-tock of dialogue-description: “Blah blah,” he said, scratching his nose. What Monroe does is give a line of dialogue that references something from the past (which we do all the time in conversation, continually referencing past things we’ve said, inside jokes, conversations interrupted, movie quotes). Rather than describe how Kristine says, “Our poetess has an admirer,” Monroe gives the context for the line and even writes dialogue that took place in that contextual moment.
  3. The present action returns, unannounced. Monroe doesn’t write, “Back in the restaurant, Kristine said…” She immediately jumps into what Kristine says, trusting the reader to keep up. The result is a rush through time and context and between exterior action and private revelation (“Poetry was a private emission I couldn’t seem to stop”). This rush is what makes the prose dynamic and interesting. Like a waterbug or Steph Curry, it never moves in a straight line, and so we lean forward, waiting to see what will happen next.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write dialogue that jumps through time, using “You’re in Trouble. Am I Right” by Debra Monroe as a model:

  1. Choose the moment of dialogue. Don’t choose a moment of high suspense, like a dying character’s last words. Choose a moment that is simply part of your narrative, not the last note of a passage but a moment that exists somewhere in the middle. (The more intensely the reader is waiting for something, as at the end of a scene, the harder it is to avoid, or jump away from, that thing they’re waiting for.) Ideally, the dialogue occurs between characters who have a history, long or short, rather than characters who’ve just met.
  2. Write a line of dialogue that references something from the past. As humans, we have a lovely tendency to reference moments from our past, moments of connection between us and the ones we love (or simply the people around us). It’s why you can spend time with a group of friends and learn a great deal about an absent friend: the others can’t help talking about her. It’s also why the new person to a group is often occasionally lost in conversation, unable to understand the references to shared moments that the others make. So, include one of these moments in your dialogue. Let your character reference a past joke, conflict, or conversation. Or let the character make a joke, observation, or reference to something from the past (it can be anything, really). In other words, let the dialogue reveal the history of the relationship between the characters.
  3. Jump into the reference. Your readers are the new members of the group. They don’t understand the reference. So, tell them about it. Jump into the moment being referenced and either explain or show through scene what was being referenced.
  4. Return to the present moment without transition. It’s almost always the case that transitions are unnecessary. The reader, if you’ve set the scene and context clearly enough, will keep up. Plus, transitions are boring. Plus, sharp juxtapositions are interesting. Monroe juxtaposes Gottfried Benn and “Young people are naturally interested in sex,” which is charming and weird, and so we’re drawn into what gets said next.

The goal is to write dialogue that conveys a sense of time. As a side effect, you may also be able to replace a mundane dialogue tag and description with a flashback or reference that must be explained.

Good luck.

2 Responses to “How to Create Depth of Time in Dialogue”


  1. How to Create Depth of Time in Dialogue | Chutney and Chitlins… - October 13, 2015

    […] Source: How to Create Depth of Time in Dialogue […]

  2. An Interview with Debra Monroe | Read to Write Stories - January 28, 2016

    […] To read an exercise on using dialogue, inspired by an excerpt from My Unsentimental Education, click here. […]

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