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Dialog in a memoir: “So what did you say?”

Dialog is important in a memoir because it allows us to “hear” the subject, but using dialog is also fraught with problems. It can throw your memoir off.

Pitfalls of using dialog in a memoir

Essentially, most writers use dialog that is too long. A memoir, of course, is a remembered story. When the writer uses lengthy dialog in a memoir, s/he stretches credulity. The reader questions whether the writer is actually making the dialog up—how can the writer who is now 60 possibly remember such lengthy dialogue of three or four paragraphs with such precision from the time s/he was 7?

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Rule of thumb: brevity in direct; length in indirect.

Keep direct dialog short: often no more than 10 words. (“This is an ugly dress,” my mother said when I showed her what I had found.)

Remember: direct dialog is speech in quotation marks.

Use direct dialog in a memoir to convey feeling: “This is an ugly dress.”

Never use direct dialog to impart information. In “My dear, sweet cousin Cornelia, the third duchess of Huntington and wife to the fourth earl of Suffolk, how are you?” (No, I don’t read romance novels.) the phrase “the third duchess of Huntington and wife to the fourth earl of Suffolk” is obviously info giving for the reader and not for Cornelia who is being addressed and obviously knows who she is.

Give information in the narrative of the memoir.

“My dear, sweet cousin Cornelia,” I said to the woman who had just entered the room. Cornelia had quite a pedigree as she was the third duchess of Huntington and wife to the fourth earl of Suffolk.

The info giving in the narrative (“Cornelia had quite a pedigree as she was the third duchess of Huntington and wife to the fourth earl of Suffolk”) is very easy to read. The reader knows that it is the author of today who is saying this rather than the seven year old.

What is indirect dialog?

Indirect dialog is speech that is presented after “that.” My mother said that the dress was ugly is an example of indirect dialog in a memoir. Indirect dialog distances the speech from the speaker a bit. It has written something like that all over it.

Action Step

Read something your wrote recently and check the dialog. Is it

  • brief?
  • free of info giving?
  • in a voice that is plausible?

If not, rewrite it so that the memoir does not stretch the credulity of the reader.

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