Unraveling can be difficult. I’m writing my second memoir
and recognize anew how mysterious the process can be and that this memoir stuff
can be painful. We unearth things about ourselves we hadn’t realized before, and
the discoveries can mature us and strengthen our faith for all that comes our
way in the future.
Many thanks to Pamela Jane Bell, Matilda
Butler, and Kendra Bonnett for hosting the First Paragraph Contest over at
Women’s Memoirs, and for honoring me with a Silver award.
We all can benefit from studying
those paragraphs, so click over to last week's Silver winners, and this week’s
Gold winners, just announced today. You’ll learn good tips for crafting your
own smashing first paragraph.
P.S. I’ve changed my working
title to Winded and Scruffy and Brimming with Tales.
And now, let’s look at the best way to use dialogue in your memoir:
Needless dialogue can bore readers and tempt them to put
down your memoir.
When we speak to one another, we make small talk that’s not
important to include as dialogue (at least in most cases). That’s needless
dialogue. For example:
“Hey, how ya doin’?”
“Great. How ‘bout you? You survivin’ this storm OK?”
Unless chit-chat holds significance for your story, eliminate
Have you ever noticed that sometimes people make the same
point several times in a short conversation? For example, a person might say
something like this two or three times in a given snippet: “The doctor said you
need to go to the ER if your fever doesn’t break by midnight.”
Sometimes writers include repetitious phrases to emphasize
urgency or emotion, but otherwise dialogue will be better without repetitions.
Use dialogue to show how each person in the conversation has
a unique personality, emotions, and distinct, perhaps conflicting, goals to
achieve. Dialogue can reveal the dynamics between those in the discussion,
round out characters’ personalities, and convey what’s important to each of them.
Include body language. Usually people are in motion when
they speak and those activities carry a message and reveal a person’s
When a man is impatient, waiting for his wife to get dressed
so they can go out, does he stand by the door and toss his car keys up and
down, up and down? Is he sending her a coded message?
Does she habitually refuse to make eye contact when a certain
topic comes up? What does she look at instead? Does she cross her arms over her
chest? Does she swallow hard? Does she start a sentence she can’t finish? Does
she change the subject?
Bottom line: Use brief but necessary dialogue—dialogue that
will enhance your story’s message, bring main characters to life, and increase the
reader’s comprehension—and include body language.
At that link you’ll find a list of the other Silver Winners
and their paragraphs, and you’ll see what worked and what didn’t. Studying those
entries, and reading Pamela’s feedback, helped me grow as a writer, and you’ll
find the reading of them informative, too.
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
“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
“… [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
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?