Writing dialogue in memoirs or nonfiction books makes people nervous. And with good reason! Novelists base their work on fabrications of varying extents; memoirists and writers of narrative nonfiction have to be prepared to stand behind their every word as fact.
So, if nonfiction is about fact, then what should a writer do about writing dialogue in nonfiction if he/she doesn’t know or remember exactly what was said?
There Are (At Least) Three Schools of Thought About Writing Dialogue in Memoirs or Nonfiction Books
1. Dialogue is purely representative. People from this school say that dialogue in memoir (and even some nonfiction books) doesn’t have to be verbatim. After all, nobody expects a writer to remember exactly what his/her mother was chatting about that sunny morning in June forty years ago.
Representative dialogue gets at a larger truth even though it, by necessity, must sacrifice those smaller truths, like whether or not Mom said “I never cared for broccoli” or “I don’t like broccoli.”
Memoir writers are particularly inclined to embrace representative dialogue, though some writers choose to stay away from dialogue entirely unless is it absolutely necessary. That way, writers can minimize or downplay a lack of perfect word-by-word recall.
Other writers fully embrace dialogue with the same gusto that some novelists do. They believe it’s the representative truth that matters. Ultimately, it’s a personal choice.
2. If you write it down, it must be totally factual. Some writers who branch out of memoir (and even some memoir writers) are sticklers for pure, provable fact. Some writers avoid dialogue if they don’t have the wording exactly right. Some authors use court documents as resources. Some have recordings, letters, etc.
Whatever the primary material, the result is the same. These writers are very protected by documents that corroborate their dialogue, which could be helpful in the event of a lawsuit. Plus, their books tend to be considered highly authoritative.
Read more: Creative Nonfiction: How To Stay Out Of Trouble
3. A little gray is a-okay. While some writers are open to transcripts and written documentation for dialogue, they also believe there’s a time and a place for a little conjecture, streamlining, or tweaking for clarity.
Let’s say a key moment of a nonfiction book has finally arrived after three hundred pages, but the biographer just doesn’t know for certain what the subject said. Until now, the dialogue has been based closely on documents (even if it’s not included verbatim). Now, for this key moment, there’s nothing on record. What to do?
In this case a writer might believe that an educated guess is harmless. And any possible amount of damage may be trumped by the emotionality of the moment and the necessity for a bit of dialogue.
What You Can Do About Your Book’s Dialogue
If you’re worried about misrepresentation issues because you’re essentially making up some of your dialogue, it might put your mind at ease to find ways to relate to the reader that you’re really not claiming to be 100% accurate in your dialogue.
First, you can include a sentence in the “author’s notes” section of your book, stating your position on dialogue.
Second, you can use cues within the text itself to denote dialogue that is more conjecture than fact. For example, “I remember she said something like…” However, you may want to do this sparingly, or your dialogue will begin to get annoying. Plus, most readers understand that a writer can’t know every word that was said and that a certain amount of representation may be involved.
Finally, if you as a narrator have a role in your own story, you might say something along the lines of, “It’s hard not to imagine Suzy running to her friend and saying ‘Oh, Thank God. I was so worried. Where have you been?”
Read more: Tell Your True Story: Six Tips To Help You Publish A Personal Essay
Once you settle on your own personal feelings about using dialogue in nonfiction, just be sure you’re being as accurate and transparent as you possibly can. Dialogue can enliven a project, or cast doubts on a project’s position as a reliable source. Know yourself, your intentions, and your audience, and you’ll be fine.
QUESTION: What’s your philosophy on dialogue in nonfiction?
This is a very interesting and informative article. I will take everything I have read from it under consideration before taking that
step into writing non fiction book. Thanks for all the great articles that
your company writes.
In my memoir, I stayed away from dialogue for the most part and presented the facts as I remembered them. I used a few quotes and they were precisely what was said. I could not forget those words from people who were unforgettable to me. However, in my only real non-fiction book, it was half transcripts of emails and chat sessions with dozens of people. The other half was my feelings about what was said. I allowed the people in the book to have their say and did very little editing.
Can a memoir have no quotes at all? If the event is so old that the dialogue has been lost only to survive in descriptive scene writing, I feel the story is lost. Can you write an entire book without one conversation between characters? In journalism there is an expectation of quotes to back the information given, wouldn’t this be the same? Even if it is made up according to the feel of the situation occurring in the story? My father tells a story from his childhood but it doesn’t include anything more than the story and what he remembers his mother saying, not the actual quote from his mother. Am I making any since?
Good question, Penney. Unfortunately, there is a big difference between an oral recollection and writing a story down to have readership. Your nonfiction book is going to be a little too hard to digest if there are no exchanges between your characters to break up the exposition. This is not to say it would be impossible to write a nonfiction story without dialogue, but your audience might lose interest without something to separate what might otherwise be walls of text.
You’ve nicely delineated the three choices, with the assumption that may choose to blend a couple of them. I found when writing a research/document-based book with snippets of remembered feeling and conversation that I did recall specific conversations quite clearly. At a distance of 15 years were those recollections as accurate as a court transcript? Very possibly not. Neither were they as dry… Where I couldn’t quite remember details, I said that as part of the dream/remembering presentation I was using.
In my current work, almost entirely interview-based, the through-line of the story is my journey to gather the information. While I have our interview conversations on tape, I hadn’t known at the time I’d be going this direction, so didn’t write down how I felt standing on a train platform in the middle of nowhere, waiting for my interview subject to meet me, as promised… or a hundred other details that are breathing life into the story, as Penny says, above.
Good post – thanks much.
Dialogue is always a challenge because it has to be interesting, engaging and telling, all while propelling the story forward. My personal philosophy is “Never let the facts get in the way of the truth,” but if I have records of dialogue, I will use them.
Memoir isn’t really non-fiction. If it is, at best it’s very creative non-fiction. A construct from a memory or series of memories. Even the memoirist who believes in sticking as closely to the mundane facts as possible, is beginning twice removed from the facts. And the truth? Well, for a memoirist truth is based on how s/he sees the world, her opinions and judgements, her beliefs and perceptions. I think anyone who expects a memoir to be a autobiography doesn’t understand what a memoir is.
Great article! Thanks!
I wrote a family book last year that were short stories about our childhood (I have six siblings). I used dialogue in it because I wrote it in novel form. The dialogue wasn’t accurate (word-for-word, but I know my siblings well enough that I know what they would say in certain situations.
I didn’t pubish this book. It was only to hand out to family members, so it could be passed on and our story not forgotten. I had no complaints from my family about the story.
I included old family photos and history about each set of grandparents.
The initial research was a collaberation between me, my four sisters and our mother. The book was five years in the making. Our motnher now has dementia and I wanted to get it finished so she could read it before she totally loses her mind.
I think you have to have dialogue in any book to make it more interesting and to break up the text. That’s my two cents
If you put it in quotes and you don’t know that it is accurate, you are writing fiction, unless you introduce it in a way that indicates it is a representation of the truth, as outlined above. The bigger problem with making up dialogue and putting it in quotes is that no one will ever know whether you are actually writing the truth or not. And, by extension, readers will not trust the writer of creative nonfiction. That’s already become an issue, because of several writers who have done this very thing.
When I write dialogue that is not exact, should I omit quote marks. I have only about six lines of dialogue in block format.
Spoken dialogue is always in quotation marks.
I am writing a travel memoir based on an 8-month journey through Africa with my 10 year old daughter. This journey took place in 1995-1996 – 25 years ago. I kept a daily journal during this time, and so I’m using these entries to create my story. I am also a photographer & have photos to accompany this story. All conversations have basically been forgotten, but I’m concerned that without dialogue, my story could be flat. The adventures we shared, though were many, because we were often off the beaten path, living with remote tribes, backpacking & hitch hiking across 5 countries. Any suggestions about whether to make up dialogue, or not?
You may find this article helpful: https://writersrelief.com/2009/02/13/creative-nonfiction-how-to-stay-out-of-trouble/
I greatly appreciate your article. I have written poetry throughout my life so have not had to deal with the dialogue issue. I have often thought about writing a book, and have had several ideas for them. I finally figured out that writing the dialogue was a daunting and elusive part of the process that held me back. That said, I so admire authors who have a magical gift for it. I am now considering writing a memoir, which is how I came to your article. Even though I’m not ready to write a novel, I think I can recollect enough verbal interactions to add to my story. Thanks again for a very helpful article.