The Thing Said: Ten Thoughts on Writing Dialogue in Memoir
- Accept the fact that you’ll never remember exactly what someone said. Trust me. You may think you will, but you won’t. The thing said is lost to time; all that remains is the shape you give it as you do your best to call it back.
2. Other people will remember the thing said slightly different than you will remember it. Let them. It may help in the composing process to hear what they remember. They may give you a line better than any you could have written. If it has the ring of truth, go with it. If it doesn’t have the ring of truth, put it away from you.
3. The ring of truth is the feeling memoir writers get when something flips over inside them, and they know they’re in touch with the essence of the experience they’re trying to recreate on the page. Dialogue can take us to the ring of truth. Maybe a father said, as mine did, “Can’t never did nothing.” When did he say it? Often. I may not remember the exact moments when he said that line, but I can recall the feeling of inadequacy it always gave me, the feeling that I’d never be able to please him.
4. What were the things the people in your memoir said with frequency? Those lines are always there for you to use—yes, even if you don’t remember if they said them at the exact time you hear them saying them in the scenes you’re writing.
5. Dialogue should be distinctive. Read enough fiction to catch onto the fact that the reader should be able to identify the speaker without any dialogue attribution simply from the sound of the voice.
6. Cadence, vocabulary, syntax. Mine isn’t yours, and yours isn’t mine.
7. Dialogue should move the narrative forward while also contributing to characterization. In Barry Lopez’s “Murder,” he recalls the time a woman, a stranger, asked him to kill her husband. “I’ve got a gun over there in that car,” she says. “He’s in a garage outside of town, working on his car. All you have to do is walk in there, walk right up to him, and shoot him. He won’t know you. There’s no one else there. No one could hear.” This speech lays out the plan, but it also reveals just how desperate this woman is and how intensely she’s imagined this solution to her problem.
8. Dialogue has subtext. Everything we say doesn’t say everything we want to say. A well-constructed line of dialogue can be interesting for what it doesn’t say. In my essay, “Drunk Man,” I recall the time my father offered to buy a local man with a drinking problem a meal. “C’mon, Odie,” he said. “Let’s get you something to eat.” Odie picked up right away on the thing not said and the judgment it carried. “I don’t need no handout. Let me out of this damn truck.”
9. Miscommunication through dialogue can make a memorable scene. What have you or the people in your life said that was misunderstood, that caused some shift in your relationships?
10. Spoken speech isn’t written speech. Even memoirs require a little shaping when it comes to dialogue. Sometimes we have someone say a line (something we “remember” them saying) even if we’re not sure he or she said it at that exact time. Sometimes we give the line a little something extra by combining things we remember someone saying. Maybe we let a character use a pet name that he or she always had for us. Maybe we make the speech a little less or a little more formal than it might have been. Maybe we take liberties in service of the work a particular scene is trying to do. Maybe we mess things up a bit. Everyday speech usually isn’t without a little mess. We do what we can to convince our readers that our characters said what we say they did even if they really didn’t. Sometimes we rearrange, add, and subtract. We remember that our dialogue has to have the feel of reality, and sometimes to do that, we give ourselves permission to make stuff up—not to the point that we change the essence of who someone was or the experience that we’re recalling. We don’t lie. We shape. There, I’ve said it.
As usual, fabulous, for the contents and the clarity.
Thanks so much, Shiv. I hope your writing is going well.
I said very much the same thing Lee has said here in my Radio Storytelling class, where we construct audio stories from personal memoir or creative nonfiction essays. But I’m going to have my students read Lee’s post. It is perfectly said.
Thanks so much, David, for reading my blog and for taking the time to leave a comment. I’d love to take your class!
I enjoyed your blog and plan to link to mine. Okay?
Thank you, Vicky. Yes, that’s fine.
Thank you for this. People often ask me how I recall exactly what everyone said when writing the dialogue in my memoir, Confessions of an Imperfect Caregiver. I tell them I don’t. I wrote using the things he said most often and in the manner he spoke. I did the same for all the people portrayed un the book, myself included. It’s as accurate as I could make it.
When I read it I’m takan right back to the time and place I am writing about and feel a lot of the same emotion. Reviews mention the honesty so I hope that means I got close enough to the real thing to portray the emotions caregivers feel every day.
Yes, Bobbi! That’s it exactly. Thanks so much for reading my blog and for taking the time to leave a comment.
I remember reading (or perhaps seeing it in one of the movies about Truman Capote and Harper Lee) their conflicting views about recalling exacting what someone Capote (they) had interviewed said. As I recall, Capote allowed himself a great deal of room for “shaping,” while Lee felt more of a duty to adhere to what the person had actually said, if not the exact words then certainly the intent of the person. This is a challenge all writers face, as I did in my book “Private Choices, Public Consequences” after interviewing people sharing such personal stories. I felt very responsible for adhering to their meaning, and using their words quite closely, although not everything they said. I tape recorded the interviews. Capote didn’t, and writers of memoirs would not have been likely to record or have made notes soon after the events. I enjoyed your essay and the exploration of a writer’s responsibility.
Thanks so much, Lyn. Yes, there’s always that spectrum between adherence to facts and “shaping.” Writers should know where they fall on that spectrum and why. And I might be at a different place on the spectrum with a different piece of writing. Thanks for reading my blog and for taking the time to leave a comment.
Yes, yes. The “ring of truth” and “the feel of reality.” Perfect. It’s so refreshing to have teachers and exemplars fearlessly standing up for the emotional truth above enslavement to “the facts” (as if there were such things) in memoir-writing. Thank you so much for sharing such useful thoughts, Lee.
Thanks, Mary. I’m looking forward to reading the piece that you sent.
Whew. I haven’t been doing it all completely wrong. Thank you, Lee.
Keep doing it all right, Sandra! Thanks for reading my blog and for taking the time to leave a comment.
Thanks for this wonderful guidance. I’d like to share it with my students…you’ve answered with great wisdom all the questions they ask!
Thanks, Joanne. Please do share this with your students. Thanks for reading my blog and for taking the time to leave a comment.
I have struggled SO MUCH with dialogue in my memoir, and this answers a LOT for me. Eternally grateful I am.
I’m glad it was helpful to you, Amy. I wish you all the best with your writing. Thanks so much for reading my blog and for taking the time to leave a comment.
Thanks, Lee! Your thoughts here make me feel better about how I’ve constructed dialogue in my memoir. I’ll pass your list along.
You’re welcome, Melissa! Please feel free to share the list with whomever you think might benefit from it. Take Care–Lee
Thank you for reminding me of the things I know.
Thanks for reading my blog, Elizabeth, and for taking the time to leave a comment.
Another valuable lesson. You make it sound so easy…. hope to see you next year in VT, Lee.
I’ll be there, Bob!
Lee…wish I could reveal the “dialogue” at my prison experience…it is about basic needs often times denied…the very heart of compassion…writing has become healing and activism with respect to change…thanks…Blessing and Gratitude…
Robert, you’re doing important work. Keep it up.