Thursday, October 2, 2014

Tips for using dialogue in your memoir

Dialogue, written well, can accomplish your most important goals: It can bring readers into your stories.

Dialogue, written well, can acquaint readers with your memoir’s key people. It can entice readers to keep reading. 

Dialogue can enhance emotions within a scene. It can add spark and pizzazz—or grief, or terror.

Dialogue can keep stories going—it can provide momentum.

Dialogue can share information readers need to know.

In journalism, writers must compose dialogue that’s true and accurate: It must be what a person really said. Readers count on true reporting.

In memoir, however, readers understand that conversations took place decades ago and that now, all these years later, you can’t write dialogue with complete accuracy, and that’s OK.

"Most readers are smart enough to figure out that
dialogue isn't word-for-word accuracy;
however, they assume the author
strives to be as close to the truth as possible."

As a memoirist, your job is to reconstruct past conversations with integrity. Avoid distortions. Instead, write dialogue that makes your characters convey correct messages. Create dialogue that represents your characters truthfully.

Honest, accurate dialogue is important because your readers need to trust you. If they can’t trust your dialogue, how can they trust the rest of your message?

Create dialogue that sounds like the person speaking. Each of us has our own unique speaking style. Take time to pin down the distinct speaking style of each of your key characters.

Recently I read Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet about a Chinese family in 1940s Seattle. Author Jamie Ford created well-defined speaking styles for his characters.

The oldest generation in this story, Henry’s parents, spoke like this:

“No more. Only speak you American.” 

“...You one big smile this morning, Henry.…”

“...You liking you school now? Hah?”

“...I send you to school. I negotiate your way—into a special school. I do this for you. A top white school. And what happens? Instead of studying you're making eyes with this Japanese girl. Japanese!"

“...You must. You have no choice. This is decided.”

Henry and his wife always imagined their son Marty would marry a Chinese girl, but….

Dad, I’m engaged.… She’s inside, Pops. I want you to meet her.’

“… [Henry] heard a click as the door opened behind him. A young woman poked her head out, then stepped out smiling. She had long blond hair, and cool blue eyes—the kind Henry called Irish eyes.

You must be Marty’s father! … I’m Samantha, I’ve been dying to meet you.’ She stepped past his hand and threw her arms around him.…”

Here’s a later conversation:

But what about afterwards?’ she asked. ‘After you were grown up—after he passed away? Did you feel like all bets were off and you could run wild if you wanted to? Man, I would. Being told I can’t have something would just drive me crazy, even if I didn’t know what to do with it in the first place.’”

The characters’ speaking styles are distinct.

As you draft your memoir, identify the speaking style of each key character:

If you’re writing a story about a cowboy from Texas, make him sound like a cowboy from Texas.

How would an orphan from Uganda speak? An introverted pathologist? An idealistic, energetic first-year teacher? A person whose mother just died?

If your character is grumpy, make her sound grumpy.

How would a charming lady speak? A surfer with a dry sense of humor? A shy teenager? A domineering car salesman?

How would a spinster from Boston speak? A man from Waco? A woman from Toronto? A person with only an eighth-grade education? A CEO with PhD after her name?

Experiment with dialogue in your memoir’s stories. Set your manuscript aside for a few days, then read it again.

Does it convey the speaker’s intended message?

Read your dialogue aloud. Is it stiff? Too formal or informal? Or does it sound natural?


  1. Hi, Lia, I'm so glad you've found something helpful in this blog post. Next week I'll share more tips on dialogue. I'm working on my second memoir now and suspect that other memoirists will be polishing up the same kinds of things I'm working on--in this case, dialogue. :) Thanks for stopping by, Lia.

  2. Excellent tips, Linda. May I print and distribute to students in my library class, How to Write Your Memoir or Life Story?

    1. Sure, Wayne! Next week I'll continue with more tips on dialogue. Stay tuned. :)