How to write effective dialogue in memoir

The devil’s in the dialogue.

In nearly any work of fiction, an author who has a deft understanding of dialogue and how to use it effectively ends up with a better story.

Dialogue, well written, can illuminate a character’s backstory, personality and motivations. Dialogue can help a narrative’s pacing and move the story along.

This is all well and good when you’re writing fiction. Whenever she wants to, a writer can work whatever it is she needs for a character into his dialogue.

Not so with memoir. The characters with whom an author is dealing are real people. They either said what they said—and what you need them to say—for your story or they didn’t. You can’t make it up.

Well, not really.

Unless you carried a tape recorder around all your life, your memoir isn’t going to have any dialogue if you insist on being 100 percent true to actual events, and that’s not good for a compelling narrative. So a memoirist must nail the spirit of the dialogue. As Buddhist author Nichiren Daishonin has said (and I quote in Truth, Dare, Double Dare, Promise or Repeat), “It is the heart that is important.”

Let’s look at an example from my book. Here’s a word-for-word passage from my diary, written in 1982 (names changed to protect the innocent. Or guilty. Depending on your perspective):

Jill had a bummer night. Don took her home from the game after they had play rehearsal. Jill walked around during the rehearsal. They were driving around afterwards and after a while they realized they were being followed. It turned out to be a Rob Lake and Diana Green is a good friend of Bitchy Beth. So they got into a serious game of cat & mouse. Don dropped Jill off and was suddenly cornered in her circle by Diana. She jumped out of the car and started swearing at him and hitting him. Then they both roared away. Jill was really upset because she saw it all.

I talked to her Saturday morning.

It’s obvious from this entry that I didn’t witness this event and that Jill relayed it to me. Though I don’t have a transcription of what was said, I tried to capture the heart of what might have been said this way:

After the second-to-last performance of “Where the Lilies Bloom” on Friday night (Amy and I went to see it again), Don gave Amy a ride home (I guess it was OK for him to talk to her), and I rode around with Jill. Only, apparently, a whole lot happened after Jill dropped me off in time for my curfew at home.

When she was relating it on the phone the next morning, Jill sounded like a robot with the volume turned down, she was so depressed.

“So, I ran into Don last night.”

“What?! You ran into Don’s car? Or he ran into you? He’s a crazy driver.”

“No, not actually ran into. He pulled into my driveway after I pulled into my garage, so he and I drove around for a while.”

“I thought Bitchy Beth said he wasn’t supposed to talk to you.”

“Yeah, well, he wasn’t. While we were cruising, we realized we were being followed.”

“By?”

“Rob Lake and Diana Green.”

Diana was David Green’s sister, but that wasn’t the only reason not to like her. “Isn’t Diana good friends with Bitchy Beth?”

“Yes. We tried to lose them. Then Don dropped me off, but he couldn’t escape my circle.”

Jill lived in a modern split-level on a cul-de-sac in the newer part of Wadena.

“What happened?” I was glued to the handset.

“They cornered him. Diana jumped out of Rob’s car and started swearing at Don and throwing fists, like, seriously pounding on him. Then she jumped into Rob’s car, and they drove off. Don rocketed out of my circle like he was embarrassed.”

“Oh, my God. What did you do?”

“Nothing. What was I supposed to do? Come to his rescue? I was already in the house, but I saw the whole thing.”

“Wow.”

“Yeah, wow. This totally sucks.”

“Yeah, sucks.”

Unlike my first memoir, The Percussionist’s Wife, in which I relied on police and court records to accurately recreate at least a third of the dialogue in the book, 90 percent of the dialogue in Truth, Dare, Double Dare, Promise or Repeat is fictionalized (one of the reasons I classified this work as autobiographical fiction instead of memoir).

Interestingly, memory is keener in certain moments of high stakes. One of my earliest memories is coming down the steps of the house I lived in until I was 5 and seeing my mother crying on the phone. My weeping mother clutching the phone handset wired into the wall at the bottom of the steps is seared into my consciousness, probably because it was highly unusual for me to see her crying. When I told my mother about this memory, she said it was probably the day she learned her brother had been listed as missing in action in the Vietnam War.

My memories of dialogue, at least as recorded in my diary, are a little bit like this. Much of the conversation in Chapter 14 of Truth, Dare, Double Dare, Promise or Repeat reflects what I wrote shortly after it occurred. Why did I record dialogue in this instance? No one died, but the world beneath my feet was moving and I was compelled to preserve it for, if not eternity, then at least the long term. What are the high stakes occurring in Chapter 14?

Well, I guess you’ll have to read the book to find out the heart that dialogue was capturing.

* * *

blogging-bonanza-bugI’m celebrating the countdown to the launch on Tuesday of Truth, Dare, Double Dare, Promise or Repeat: On Finding the Meaning of “Like” in 1982 with a month-long blogging bonanza, which means I’ll be blogging here every day this month about my book, about memoirs in general and about the launch.

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2 thoughts on “How to write effective dialogue in memoir

  1. Hi, Monica. I, too, utilize quite a bit of dialogue in my upcoming Memoir, Evil Beloved. I rely heavily on daily notes recorded in a journal, but admittedly, much is still left to memory and the “heart” of important conversations. Memory is a tricky beast, but the benefit of a journal has proven immensely helpful.

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