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WriteBetterMemoir7Pillars

Write Better Memoir Dialog: 7 Pillars (Proven and Easy to Do!)

In this post, I’m not only going to show you why memoir dialog is important—of course, you know that—but I’m also going to show you some best writing practices to generate memorable and meaningful dialog. You review—or perhaps that’s learn— great tips to write better memoir dialog well so keep reading until the end. I’ve got 7 proven pillars for you to add to your writing toolbox.

While dialog is an interesting and essential part of an effective memoir, do you really know how much to include and when? Or does your writing slip into conversational blah-blah-blah? Ouch!

After reading this post you’ll have seven easy, proven techniques to write better memoir dialog.

Writing Better Memoir Dialog

First off, I’ll offer you some reasons to include dialog in your writing—these are pillars, too—and then I will provide some actionable tips for creating interesting memoir speech that moves your story along.

Dialog performs several functions in making your story interesting and meaningful. Every memoir ought to contain carefully crafted dialog.

Here are some reasons for including dialog in your memoir:

  1. Memoir conversation allows the reader to hear the character speak for himself or herself.

If your character had some defense, for instance, of a behavior, you can include it here.

  • “I know it didn’t look good for me,” my uncle Victor said in his brash voice, “but it wasn’t me who did it.”

It is an opportunity to use regionalisms and particularities of speech.

  • “Ain’t much wrong with it,” my grandfather would say when he was pleased with something.

You can even write in the pauses if that was typical of the person.

  • After asking my grandmother a question I could often hear the faucet dripping or a dog barking outside. I don’t know if she was thinking of her answer or if she was just savoring how astute I was in asking such a question. As I grew older, I learned it was perhaps not the brilliance of my inquiry that had silenced her but her own process and I learned to let there be space in our conversation for her to answer.

Remember to implement this hear-the-character technique.

  1. When you write dialog well, you show rather than tell. Show and not tell is a pillar of all good writing. It permits the writer to put what might otherwise be “tell” elements into the voice of the character rather than that of the author. These elements thus become “show.” When the author presents info, however, it is “tell.” It is not bad for the writer to tell information that is important for the reader to know. I have a video on my YouTube channel on that topic.
  • “I’ve always been an immature person,” John said as he was assessing the disaster of his precipitous actions.

Now compare the previous line with the following:

  • John was an immature person, a really big baby.

In the first statement—a piece of dialog, in which John speaks, we understand that John is speaking for himself and his assessment is probably right. In the second statement, we cannot be sure the author who is saying “John is an immature person” is not really out to engage in a vendetta against John.

Letting a character speak is a great way to provide the reader with an insight the reader can accept. Otherwise, the reader may feel the author is trying to entice the reader to his side against John.

Of course, you have to use dialog that you heard—either verbatim or in a reasonable reconstruction—or have drawn from a letter or a journal. You cannot make things up just to ease your writing task.

This is pillar 2. Now, on to pillar 3.

Writing Better Memoir Dialog

  1. Learning to write dialog well permits you to impart immediacy to the story. Your memoir acquires a “you are there” quality.

“Look at me,” she said. “Look at these hands.”

With these words aren’t we drawn to look at her hands—if only in our mind?

Pillar #3 will place the reader in the timeframe of your story.

  1. Keep memoir conversation short—well, not all the time but a lot of the time

It’s harder to mess up short dialog than it is to mess up long dialog. (At least, the mess up in the memoir conversation is short.) Keep explanations for the narrative.

Here’s an example of terrible lifestory dialog:

“This is my cousin Elizabeth,” she replied, “whose father once had a hardware store on the corner of Huntington and Blake and whose business won best in the state three times in a row, but who finally got sick of hardware and turned to accounting.”

Better dialog (short) followed by an accompanying narrative:

“This is my cousin Elizabeth,” she replied. Eventually, we learned that Elizabeth’s father once had a hardware store on the corner of Huntington and Blake. His business had won best in the state three times in a row, but he finally got sick of hardware and turned to accounting. “He’s so much happier now,” added Elizabeth.

In pillar #4, we see that the words are almost the same but they are not weighed down with the implausibility of a wordy monopoly of a conversation.

  1. Insert feeling and emotion in the memoir dialog.

Again keep analysis or interpretation for the narrative.

“I resent you!’ he snarled. He had been putting up with his brother for a long time, and now that he was no longer living at home, he let his anger fly. We could have written: “I resent you! I had been putting up with you for a long time, and now that I am no longer living at home, I will let my anger fly.”

In pillar #5, you can hear how more heavy the second example sounds in the reader’s ears.

  1. Do not replicate most memoir dialogs from real life into your story. It is not interesting dialog.

Next time you are in a public place, listen to dialog around you. You will easily notice how repetitive, aimless, and meaningless it often is. Much of it just fills the air! Lifestory dialog has to move your memoir along. It cannot be a filler. It cannot be used because “That’s really what was said.”

In the first example below, the dialog doesn’t move the story along. It’s simply imitative of real life and is absolutely true—but boring! In the second, we have a glimpse of the character’s life and so this bit of dialog moves the story along.

Here’s the terrible dialog that imitates life. This is dialog we have all—you, me, everyone—indulged in:

“What will you ladies have today?” the waitress asked Theresa and me.

“What’s the special?” I asked.

“Halibut.”

“Halibut! Oh, I had halibut at my daughter’s the other day. No, I want something else.”

Now here’s some better, because it’s more interesting, dialog:

“What will you ladies have today?” the waitress asked Theresa and me.

“What’s the special?” I asked.

“Halibut.”

“Halibut!” For a moment, I was taken away by a feeling that I could not describe, but then it came to me. I had ordered halibut the day Tom had taken me out to lunch to tell me he was divorcing me.

Of course, you’ve noticed that in the second example, the memoir character—the author—uses a banal exchange to share a huge leap into the psychological realm.

  1. Skip dialog if it doesn’t add anything.

Yes, dialog can give voice to a character, but let’s not make that voice boring. In the restaurant scene above, it would be preferable to skip the dialog with the waitress and just move on to what happened between you and Theresa. If nothing happened, skip the restaurant scene altogether.

Dialog, as every part of your memoir, must serve the theme of your writing. If it doesn’t do so, excise it. As they say, “Kill your little darling!”

Which techniques did you appreciate in today’s post that you think you will use in your writing?

To view this article on video, click here.

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Now on to a question for you. Tell me—and the other readers—which one of these techniques are you going to implement first? Is it making your dialog shorter or is it making sure your dialog doesn’t only reproduce actual speech?

Oh, and before you go, I want to be sure to tell you I offer a complimentary get-to-know-you coaching or editing session.

Good luck writing the dialog of your stories! And be sure not to miss any of the learning posts on this blog.

Here is a free e-course I have curated just for you.

~ Dialog: Emotions/Not Information 

~ Write Better Dialog Tags

~ 10 Sure Dialog Hacks

~ Direct or Indirect: Which to Use?

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