How to Use Dialogue Effectively in Memoir

Updated: Jul 20

Whether questions, rants, or declarations of love, snippets of dialogue can add both spice and depth to a reader's experience of your memoir.

Coaching memoirists is fascinating for many reasons, but one of them is that I get to be privy to different people's thoughts, memories, and writing processes. I had one coaching client whose memory for #dialogue was clear as a bell, and another who only remembered snippets of conversations here and there. Most people fall somewhere in between.


Strong emotions tend to create strong memories, which can be really useful when writing #memoir. While dialogue is not necessary in a memoir, it can enhance characterization and enrich a scene considerably. It helps draw readers into the immediacy of a moment, and enables them to form their own opinions and draw their own conclusions about people and situations. Dialogue is a form of showing instead of telling.


There are many nuances involved in using dialogue effectively, and you can only hone those skills through learning and practice. You have to start somewhere, though. Here are four basic key elements to keep in mind as you begin writing:


Context


Dialogue doesn’t occur in a vacuum. There’s a setting, a location, a time of day, a particular meal, a meaningful gathering or other event. The conversation might take place in a car, a living room, a busy office, a lifeboat, a bedroom, a battlefield, a restaurant, etc.


And the dialogue wouldn’t just take place in a restaurant. It would take place between two people, say a man and a woman, and they’re seated at a small corner table, leaning toward each other, speaking over a late dinner in a noisy dining room.


And perhaps they chose this restaurant specifically because it’s noisy, and they don’t want to be overheard. And there will be a significant reason why they don't want to be overheard.


There will be a context for whatever dialogue takes place. You don’t plop dialogue down onto a page like a cow-pie in a field, or it will lack meaning and accomplish nothing.


Purpose


Dialogue should always serve a purpose. Whether you're writing fiction or nonfiction, dialogue included in any scene should do one of the following: 


  • reveal something about a character or situation

  • illustrate something about a character or situation 

  • reinforce something that has already been revealed

  • contradict something that the reader and/or another character has been led to believe 


In recalling scenes from your past, you’ll likely come up with more conversations and offhand remarks than you need. Only include those verbal exchanges that convey significance for the scene and the point you seek to make. Even if it’s colorful, funny, poetic, or poignant, if it doesn’t add value to the scene, delete it.

Realistic Language


Most modern people speak in an abbreviated fashion, unless you’re writing dialogue that:


  • takes place in a formal setting such as a lecture hall, political stage, or black-tie gala

or

  • occurs between people who may not be native English speakers or, more precisely, American English speakers

The words have to be recognizable, so that their meaning is clear, but using phrase contractions such as “gonna” for “going to”, or dropping words from phrases, as in “Need anything?” for “Do you need anything?”, is perfectly acceptable, and is more relatable for most readers.


Start paying close attention to your own conversations, and to those occurring around you, to hone your sense of capturing natural language in dialogue.

Nonverbal Cues


Most everyday face-to-face conversations don’t look or sound like text exchanges, where we trade emojis or you send a short burst of words at me, then I send a short burst of words at you, and so on. Even phone conversations can include someone swallowing, coughing, taking a sip of water, and pausing, comfortably or otherwise.


In-person conversations involve a lot more action, and interaction. Not only are there pauses and swallows, but people also, among other things:


  • blink

  • scratch their noses

  • glance at something that’s grabbed their attention

  • shift their gaze while trying to remember, or while lying

  • tilt their heads

  • narrow their eyes

  • lick their lips

  • bite their nails

  • fidget

  • touch each other

  • snort

  • sneeze

  • smile

  • grimace

  • shift their weight from one foot to the other

  • jiggle the ice cubes left in their glass


Pepper your dialogue with realistic pauses, gestures, and facial expressions. It lends naturalness to the words, and vividness to the scene.

#writingtips

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