A Shortened Reality: Simple Ways to Create Effective Dialogue in Memoir and Other Nonfiction Writing

Dialogue is more than just conversation; it's a vehicle for moving a story forward.

A careful writer can convey as much or more with a few lines of dialogue than with paragraphs of narrative. A character's choice of words can imply many things, including age, education, home city or region, personal background, emotional state, and thought patterns. 

Here are some brief examples of different characters making the same statement in their own ways, to demonstrate how dialogue, without any adornment, can prompt a reader to make assumptions about an individual.  

  • "Dude, this guy came up to me on the street out of nowhere. He tried to snatch my bag. I totally clocked him."
  • "I'm telling you, son, I never saw hide nor hair of this guy until he was grabbing at my bag."
  • "I wasn't aware of the man's presence until he snatched at my briefcase. Panicked, I swung at him. After that, I was able to escape."
  • "Oh, it was awful! This man came out of nowhere and tried to snatch my bag! I was so scared that I just hit him."

Despite a complete lack of identifying details, after reading those lines you probably have a basic idea of who these characters might be. This doesn't imply that we, as writers, should ever be stereotypical in our dialogue, or make our characters into caricatures using overdone tropes. But a well-placed "y'all" can really make or break a Southern Belle, and a request for a hoagie screams "Philly" almost as loudly as a Cheesesteak. (Here's another BIG dialogue hint: stressful situations tend to bring out people's latent dialogue traits, like strong accents or stutters; hence, the above example situation.) 

When working with fiction, a writer can shape the dialogue to fit the needs of the characters, plot, and tone. Characters can say what they need to say in order to keep the story moving and establish their motivations. But what happens when you're writing about things that actually happened, and about conversations that actually took place? 

In memoir and nonfiction, many stories rely on dialogue that actually took place. Some of this will be simply remembered; some may actually be sourced from recordings. However, none of it should be exempted from the rules of great dialogue writing.

Here are two simple ways to shorten and hone your nonfiction dialogue:

1. Cut to the chase: Removing the "ums" and "uh-huhs" from a real-life conversation doesn't change its tone or meaning. Nor does removing the platitudes and conditioned responses that pepper our daily speech. When writing a conversation between two characters, take out the small talk and get to the point so that the story can move forward. Here's an example:

Real Conversation

"Hi, Sara. How are you?"

"I'm okay, thanks. How are you?"

"I'm good. Just got back from Florida with the kids, and Mom is back on her feet, which is great."

"I'm so happy to hear that. You look really happy."

"Yeah, I guess I am. Hey, are you sure you're okay? You look a little tired."

"It's been a long two weeks."

"Really? I'm sorry to hear that. What's happening?"

"Well, Tom moved out. He wants a divorce."

Edited Conversation

"Hi, Sara. How are you?"

"Not great. Tom moved out. He wants a divorce."

As you can see, the first conversation sounds like the small talk we engage in every day, even with our close friends. It takes us a while to get to the point, because we need to perform the social niceties. However, small talk doesn't move the story forward, and it isn't interesting to readers. It's taking up page space that could be used for relevant details. 

The second conversation gets right to the "meat" of the discussion (and the story). Unless the second character's Florida trip is important to the reader (meaning, it has some bearing on a later part of the story), there's no need to mention it. 

By cutting out the small talk, we have not changed the nature of the conversation, only deleted the "warm-up." 

 

2. Streamline the delivery ... In normal speech, we tend to ramble. We repeat ourselves, switch gears in mid-sentence,  use passive verb forms, and add lots of unnecessary descriptive words. When translating true stories onto the page, we can exercise some creative license and remove these extra parts of speech from the dialogue without changing the meaning at all. Here's an example: 

Original

"I don't know about that. I don't know. How would that have even been possible? Like, with all of us in the house at the time? Everyone was just doing their thing, but someone probably would have seen something going on. Don't you think?"

Edited

"I don't know how that would have been possible, not with all of us in the house. Someone would have noticed, don't you think?"

(Bonus: When you do this, you'll also end up making your subjects sound more articulate! Just don't formalize the language to the point where it doesn't sound like the same character anymore.)

 ... But don't rewrite the conversation. Writers of nonfiction walk a fine line between story and reality, especially with dialogue. Memory is never exact - and so it's easy, as a writer, to slant a story to reflect your viewpoints, take statements out of context, or exercise selective memory when it comes to key conversations. In many ways, this is natural and expected; we all internalize our experiences differently, and even people who shared those experiences may remember them differently than we do. However, especially when it comes to the antagonists in our stories, we need to tread carefully to avoid crossing the line from fact into fiction. When in doubt, leave it out. 


I hope you enjoyed this (ironically, very long) post about shortening and honing dialogue. 


Bryna Rene Haynes is the founder and President of The Heart of Writing, the chief editor for Inspired Living Publishing, and the best-selling author of The Art of Inspiration: An Editor's Guide to Writing Powerful, Effective Inspirational and Personal Development Books.In over a decade as a writer, editor, ghostwriter, designer, and publishing consultant, she has helped hundreds of authors find their authentic voices and create powerful, memorable, successful works. She lives outside of Providence, RI, with her husband, Matthew, and their little Moonbeam, Áine.