From Memories to Memoirs, Part 9: Dialogue in Memoir

by Amber Lea Starfire on October 27, 2014


Dialogue does the heavy-lifting work – carrying details, setting the scene and moving the plot forward.  ~ J.H. Mae

Perhaps more than any other writing device, dialogue brings your readers into the immediacy of scene. It provides a method for showing, not just telling about, a person’s character and personality, as well as how events and you were perceived through their eyes. A story without dialogue can be successful, but it will always be understood from a distance, and only from the point of view of the narrator. On the other hand, a scene with dialogue allows readers to understand events from multiple points of view and personalities.

Dialogue broadens and deepens a story, and it is every bit as important to plot and character development in memoir as to fiction. Yet, when it comes to memoir, how we choose to craft dialogue can be a controversial subject.

Purists contend that you shouldn’t put words between quotation marks unless you are able to actually quote the speaker verbatim.  I disagree. Unless you are lucky enough to have recordings of actual conversations, you’ll never to be able to remember the exact words spoken by the people in your past, but you will remember the context and the basic gist of what they said, including their tone and meaning. You will have the truth of their message, as you understand it, if not their exact words.

So the first thing to understand and accept about dialogue in memoir is that it can only be an approximation of what was said. In addition, what you remember may not agree with how someone else remembers it — and that is okay. It’s always a good idea, if possible, to interview others who were there to find out what they remember about the conversation, but ultimately you need to write what feels true to you.

Let’s look at various ways you can use dialogue in memoir to set scene, develop your characters, and move the action forward — keeping in mind that you’re writing conversations that actually occurred to the best of your memory, not ones you’re inventing.

  • Remember that people have their own manner of speaking, their unique combination of syntax, rhythm, accent, and timbre that are part of what makes them unique. When writing dialogue, capturing as much as you can remember of a person’s speech mannerisms goes a long way toward painting a picture of that character.
  • In addition, your characters probably had their own ways of describing places and people that helps not only to illuminate how they viewed life through the lens of their personalities. Oft-spoken maxims, such as, “Everything comes out in the wash,”  reveal a lot about a person.
  • Your characters’ words can help your readers understand aspects of you, the narrator. For example, my mother used to call me a “true believer,” because she thought I was too idealistic in nature. By including her words in my memoir, my tendencies toward optimism and idealism are revealed in a flawed light. The result is a more honest look at myself. At the same time, my readers get a better sense of my mother’s character.
  • People often talk about past events. Including some of these conversations (or even arguments about the past) in your memoir can substitute for narrative backstory.
  • Through what is said — and what is not said — you can reveal conflict between characters. Including misunderstandings and arguments can “bring home” aspects of your story and make them more memorable.

Finally, give yourself permission to shape dialogue to portray the truth of and give maximum impact to your story, while not changing the essence of the experience you’re remembering. You may not remember the exact words spoken by your father when he kicked you out of the house at age 17, but you remember the kinds of things he said in moments like that; you remember the expression that would have been on his face and the gestures he would have made; you remember the kinds of clothes he wore, if not the exact garments.

So go ahead. Write that dialogue. Your story will be stronger for it.


Photo Credit: Ed Yourdon via Compfight cc


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