Dialogue Important in Memoirs Too

The use of dialogue is important in memoirs as well as in fiction.

Many of us assume that because we can’t recall conversations word for word, we can’t write dialogue. Memoirs are your “memories,” so you can take a little creative license with them. Actually, no one recalls conversations in detail. If you do remember a significant line or exchange, by all means quote it. But more often you will simply remember that a conversation took place. You will have to imagine the conversation as a novelist would, without all the uhs and ers, tangents and digressions that people use when they talk.

Here’s what dialogue is:
• Talk is an ACTION. An ideal, compact way to advance your story by having one character tell the other what’s happening—to reveal, admit, incite, accuse, lie, etc.
• A way to define a character. The way someone speaks—accent, vocabulary, idiom, inflection—tells as much about what he is like as his actions do. And let’s us see him better than just using description.
• One way to show emotion. Characters reveal themselves when under stress or angry. Dialogue is used to create an emotional effect in the reader.
 • Another way to show point of view POV. (in whose head the reader should be.) This is not quite as critical in Memoirs as in fiction, because it may be all from your POV. Depends how you write it—if you’re writing someone else’s story, you may want to write it in story form, from “within your character’s head” or third person—Suzy did, she said, etc.
• Often used to get across what is NOT said. Example, if you want to show that someone wants to avoid an unpleasant encounter, you can show this by having them talk around the subject uppermost in their mind, but never quite touch it. In this way, you’re asking the reader to read between the lines. It’s tricky, but think about how you talk to someone yourself when you’re angry at them but don’t want to tell them exactly why—by being sarcastic, arch, nitpicky, over solicitous, etc.

Techniques. One of the most common reasons for flat, voiceless dialogue is formality. Dialogue sounds artificial when it is totally coherent and logical. You want thoughts that are loose, words that tumble out.

• Use more contractions—“I would not (wouldn’t) do that if I were you.” UNLESS you want to portray your character as being stiff or pompous or that English is not his first language. “Is it not wonderful?” has a Continental flair.
• Use sentence fragments. Example: Instead of:
“Is she sick?”
“It does not matter if she is or is not. She is not going to go to the party.”
“Is she sick?” “Doesn’t matter, she’s not going.”

Taglines. Whenever possible, try to use an action instead of a tagline (he said, she said). One of the reasons for not using a lot of taglines is to develop each person’s distinct voice, so that all your characters don’t sound the same. Hint: If you do use taglines, it’s better to stick with the word “said”, rather than trying to come up with substitutes such as cry, interject, interrupt, mused, state, counter, conclude, mumble, intone, roar, exclaim, fume, explode. These are “telling” words. Let the words in the dialogue show the emotion. And you can NEVER smile words, or squint them, or laugh them.

• Establish the point of view (POV) of each character, i.e. his or her values and attitudes
• Recreate the impression of natural speech.
• Use dramatic structure to shape the sequence of what is said.
• Let characters make long speeches
• Put in “dead” dialog that doesn’t further the story line, e.g., “Hello, how are you?” “Fine, how are you.”
• Use too many odd spellings, for dialect
• Use too many taglines or substitute different words for “said.”


A native Montanan, Heidi M. Thomas now lives in North-central Arizona. Her first novel, Cowgirl
Dreams, is based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, won the national WILLA Award. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing, and is a member of the Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing and edits, blogs, and her next book Dare to Dream Will be published next May.


Kathleen Moulton said...

Heidi, such great information! I learned so much. Filing this in my "keeper" folder for future use.

Melinda Brasher said...

Great advice.

I totally agree about the awkwardness of synonyms for said. When characters constantly expound, implore, vocalize, declaim, lilt, opine, etc, I tend to stop reading the book.

However, I do think that you can laugh words, when you're pushing the words out--often unintelligibly--through the laughter. Squinting words? Not so much.

You're dead on about contractions. For heaven's sake, unless your character is an android or something, use them! Internal thoughts generally need contractions too, and if you're in deep POV, narration and description is awkward any other way. Our high school English teachers drilled into our heads that this is wrong, wrong, wrong. Maybe it's time to say goodbye to those teacher ghosts.

Great point about the dead dialogue. I'll have to keep an eye out for it.

Thanks so much.

Magdalena Ball said...

good points Heidi. Dialogue is one of the easiest and most effective ways of showing and not telling, and having emotion and action replace awkward tag lines is the perfect way of killing two birds with one stone (for example, "I'm just not sure," she rested her head on her hands. He could see her shoulders rise and fall in the awkward silence that followed.)

Karen Cioffi said...

Heidi, great tips on dialogue. Point of view gets even more tricky when writing for younger children. Even after five books, I still catch myself using another character's POV. I then have to rewrite the scene to reflect the protagonist's POV.

Shirley Corder said...

Great post, Heidi. I love dialogue, both reading it and writing it. It also helps to move the text along. I use it as much as I can during NaNoWriMo which I'm busy on right now. It brings life to the writing and is really so simple to do, as long as you write the way you talk. (Which of course is not always possible, depending on who your character is!)

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