November 16, 2010

How can you remember everything people said?

That’s a question I’m often asked by people who don’t write memoir.  It’s a tough one to answer without impugning the form because for some literal minded readers, a memoir is supposed to be 100% factual, 100% accurate.  Every single thing in a memoir, for this kind of reader, is supposed to be “true.”  So if you’re the kind of reader – or writer – who thinks a memoir should only report precisely what happened and nothing else, then the use of dialogue in memoir becomes impossible.  For who can remember precisely what anyone said this morning, yesterday, last week, much less twenty years ago.

It’s true there are some writers – Augusten Burroughs is supposed to be one of them – who can reproduce precisely what was said.  He has the gift of hearing what’s said, remembering it, and reproducing it verbatim.  A reporter put him to the test and he passed.

Rule Number One.  For me, the use of dialogue in memoir boils down to this.  Dialogue in memoir stands for the dialogue that actually took place.  It re-presents the language that was used as closely as the memoirist can represent it.  It presents what the memoirist remembers was said.  (Memoir/memory.)  For almost all of us, dialogue can’t be remembered exactly.  And even if it were, from my point of view, we couldn’t use what we remember because there’s nothing more boring than a direct transcription of dialogue.  So, for me, dialogue in memoir has to be shaped, crafted.  It must be absolutely authentic.  (Your father, for example, can’t say the “f” word unless he did.)  And the substance of what was said can’t be tampered with.  (You can’t exaggerate what you said, what the other person said.)  Kit Reed in Story First says that dialogue represents the truth of speech, rather than actual speech.  I believe that to also be true of memoir.

Hi honey.

Do you want to go out to dinner?

I don’t know. Do you?

I don’t know.

Maybe I should make chicken.

We had it last night.

Oh, I forgot.

What do you think?

Do you want to go out to dinner?

Do you?

That’s a pretty accurate transcription of a conversation I had with my husband.  I wrote it down as soon as we had it because I knew I’d be writing about memoir.  It illustrates one fact of speech – that it circles round and round.  That’s fine in real life.  But in a work of art?  Not for me.  I can of one memoir in which the writer interviewed a score of people about an important subject.  She then directly transcribed the interviews and presented them in her book.  I kept wanting to prune them and shape them.  It was one of the most boring memoirs I’ve read even though it was about an important subject

So here’s Rule Number Two.  When you use dialogue in memoir, craft it, shape it, leave out the boring parts.  Present the kernel of the truth of the interchange, distilled.  If, however, the person whose language was an insufferable windbag and went on and on about the same thing many times, you might want to let the dialogue run, and use it often.  That’s a great way to show the obsessive quality of someone’s speech.  So, if I were to use the dialogue I wrote out above in a book (heaven forbid), I’d simply say, “Hi honey.  Do you want to go out to dinner?  I don’t know.  Do you?”  That would be sufficient to re-present that ridiculous conversation.  But if I wanted to satirize the dumb conversations my husband and I have about food every day, I might use the whole thing.

Now here’s Rule Number Three.  And this comes from Kit Reed’s magnificent Story First. Think of a long run of dialogue as a little play.  Where the people are at the beginning of the dialogue is different from where they are at the end of the dialogue, either in terms of the relationship between the characters or in terms of what we know about the characters or in terms of what the characters know about themselves.  In Kathryn Harrison’s The Mother Knot, the longest conversations occur between the “Kathryn” character and her therapist.  They “show” the change that’s occurring as the character unwinds the meaning of her relationship with her mother.  So this kind of dialogue begins in place A, but ends in place B.  In one conversation in Harrison’s memoir, at the beginning of the run of dialogue she doesn’t know why she is the way she is.  By the end, she realizes that she’s internalized the mother who didn’t want her.

Rule Number Four.  Dialogue should almost always be used for dramatic purposes.  To enrich our knowledge of a character.  To reveal the tension between two characters.  To hear how someone says something that’s different from the way someone else would phrase it.  To underscore the most important conflict in the work.  In Harrison’s The Mother Knot, virtually every scrap of dialogue is about the mother, about Harrison’s relationship to her mother, about her unwinding of the meaning of her mother’s influence on her life.  (I’ve gone through the book, and isolated all the dialogue – a terrific exercise that teaches a great deal about how a brilliant memoirist uses dialogue.  I suggest you do it for several pages with a memoir you love.)

Rule Number Five.  When you use attributions (he said, she said), it’s best to keep the attribution simple (he said, she said).  Attributions that try to tell you the tone of voice seem amateurish.  (She said pleadingly.)  Better to show the emotion in a different way, between the lines of dialogue.  (Bad example: “I don’t want to go,” he said.   I could tell by the set of his jaw that he was furious.”)

Rule Number Six.  You can intersperse dialogue with commentary.  In fact, it’s terrific when you do.  Here’s an example from Harrison’s The Mother Knot:

“You’re not forgetting what happened before,” my analyst prompted, alluding to my stubborn refusal, in 1998, to resort to antidepressants, pride that insisted I deny depression until it dismantled me.”

“No,” I said.  “I remember.”

Watch what happens if Harrison hadn’t included that commentary:

“You’re not forgetting what happened before?”

“No,” I said, “I remember.”

Beginning memoirists tend to run dialogue without commentary.  But it’s really wonderful to interrupt it for all kinds of purposes.  To describe the setting.  To provide backstory (as Harrison does here).  To have the memoirist interpret what’s going on.  To say how the language affected her, affected him.

Here’s another helpful hint from Reed, a rule of sorts.  Readers, Reed maintains, can only hold six unattributed speeches in their head before becoming confused.  Watch how this works in this bad example.

“Should we go to the park?” Harry asked.

“No,” I said.  “I don’t want to.”

“Why not?”


“That’s not a reason.”

“I don’t have to give you a reason.”

“Yes you do.  We said we’d be honest with each other.”

“You’re never honest with me.”

“That’s hitting below the belt.”

According to Reed, at “You’re never honest with me,” the reader has no idea who’s speaking.

And finally…. Don’t ignore the power of using a single word.  (I asked him whether he still loved me.  “No,” he said.)







5 Responses to “Dialogue”

  1. Jason Perry Says:

    I experimented with dialogue in my writing. I find that dialogue is useful to break up the narrative and ad drama. But, after reading some of it in my pieces i feel that it was unnecessary for me to have because the time period that the dialogue takes place. Would putting a [ ] in the quoted structure help with issues of conviction?

  2. ashley Leavitt Says:

    I find writing dialogue really tricky. The comment that dialogue should create tension between the characters which also helps move the narrative along is very helpful. But, how do you determine when a character has said enough? Is this understanding organic and comes with experience? Also, I have heard that good writers are able to create distinct voices that identify each character individually. Is this possible in memoir when often members of a family or group of friends sound alike – meaning they have a similar vocabulary, colloquialisms and perhaps even speech patterns? It was mentioned that the character’s word choice must be authentic. Therefore, is the trick, to create dialogue that matches the character’s personality, not necessarily what they really might have said…to make them like a TV version of themselves, more real, more clear than they really are in everyday life?

    Can a memoir be written using very little dialogue, or none at all? And is it absolutely necessary to make a paragraph break every time there is a change of speaker?
    Otherwise, should the characters be mainly described through their actions and the reflective voice of the narrator? Is it okay for the narrator to directly address the reader? I realize these are probably too many question to answer here, but perhaps there is a literary source that would be helpful to me, or a memoir that uses a lot of dialogue I could examine?

    • writingalife Says:

      I think that there are no rules here. Check out your favorite memoirs and see how they handle dialogue. There are conventions (changing a paragraph every time there’s a new speaker). And there are artistic manipulations of conventions (not changing paragraphs every time there’s a new speaker). But the thing is, people have such fantastically distinctive voices that not using speech robs us of one means of characterizations. For example — and this is a quick, off-the-top-of-my-head example — every time my father hammered in a nail and it didn’t go in quite right, he said “Damn it to hell” over and over again. This is too delicious not to use. And when I was swimming across Lake George very much against my will to toughen me up and I wanted to quit halfway, my father said “Gather courage and move on.” That too is too delicious not to use.

      Of course the narrator can address the reader. I do that for fun in my memoir Adultery to spoof a famous line in a novel (Reader, I married him). I’m talking about a trip my husband and I made after I learned he was cheating on me. This happened early in the marriage. The line I used, as I addressed the reader was “Reader, I f—–ed him.” So address the reader if you want.

      A memoir that uses tons of dialogue is Margaux Fragosi’s Tiger, Tiger. I read it before its publication. Watch out for it. It’s coming out in March, I think.

  3. Peter Orozco Says:

    Man, I had to search for this one, but I finally found an excellent example on how to use dialog. All my questions were answered in this one post. I always felt that adding attributions to my dialogs felt out of place, and I’m glad to read that my hesitation is affirmed. It always felt much cleaner to simply add “he said she said,” but I worried that the reader wouldn’t understand the tone of the dialog, but you answered that question also. Adding interruptions will help me to get across how I want the dialog to come across. Thank you for this post, and I also liked that you ordered the advice with rule numbers.

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