Dialogue is something fiction writers have to think about all the time, but it’s just as important if you’re writing narrative nonfiction or memoir. Dialogue can often make or break a story, and for that reason, writing dialogue can be a challenge to do well. But it doesn’t have to be. The strategies below can both lessen the challenge and make writing dialogue more enjoyable.
Move the Story Forward
In real life, people often get together to make small talk, exchanging information in a way that flows seamlessly from one topic to another. There’s no real intention behind these conversations, and for this reason, many of the conversations we have in real life are poor models of what dialogue should be like in a story, even if it’s nonfiction.
Negotiation is a more accurate model because when we’re trying to get something out of someone, we’re being much more intentional with our words. We try to control the response of the other person by choosing just the right thing to say. The dialogue you choose to put into your narrative nonfiction needs to be intentional.
People in a story are on a journey that needs to be ever moving forward. Nothing can slow the journey down more quickly than two people sitting down and making small talk, moving from one topic to another. Intention is vital. Every word that is spoken by the people in a story needs to help drive the story forward.
If a line of dialogue doesn’t move the story forward in some way, cut it.
Be Cautiously Realistic
Listening to conversations where someone is trying to get something out of the other person is a good way of developing your ear for story dialogue. But don’t be too quick to copy everything you hear in a conversion and put it into your dialogue. Just because it was said one way in real life doesn’t mean you can’t be economical with your words in the way you write it. The key is to capture the meaning while also eliminating what is unnecessary.
People often use a lot of words to communicate what could be said in fewer. Conversations are also often riddled with nonsense words and unnecessary moments of silence and even repetition. Conversations in real life are, to be honest, sloppy.
Take a look at the line of dialogue below.
“Hey,” Jenny said. “How did the, um, fundraiser go?”
That’s something you might hear in everyday conversation, but it’s full of unnecessary words, and it doesn’t make for good writing. A better way to write it would be:
“How was the fundraiser?” Jenny said.
Dialogue should sound realistic, but if you’re committed to the idea of moving the story forward with dialogue, then you have to remove what’s unnecessary.
Don’t just consider what a person says; consider what they mean. In real life and in narrative nonfiction, people often say one thing but mean something else. This is called subtext, and it’s a key way to write dialogue that hints at conflict between people and moves the story forward.
“Thanks for calling me last night,” Cassie said.
“I didn’t,” Elijah said.
Elijah sighed. “Our anniversary. I completely forgot.”
On the surface, taking the words Cassie speaks at face value, she seems to be grateful for getting a phone call from Elijah. But when we’re given the fuller context, there’s more to what she’s saying that just the words coming out of her mouth. Cassie’s not happy, but notice she doesn’t tell Elijah she’s unhappy. It’s implied through subtext. Since subtext is a part of real life, it should be a part of your narrative nonfiction as well.
Subtext makes your dialogue creates conflict and sound more realistic.
Keep it Grounded
Dialogue takes place within a specific place and time in the story you’re telling. However, if your page looks like one line of dialogue after another without any interruption, your reader’s sense of time and place in the story disappears as the people become “talking heads.”
Grounding dialogue to the specific space and time it takes place in your story involves creating beats between lines of dialogue to give the characters breathing room and immersing your reader into the action of the story.
Look at the example below.
“Thanks for calling me last night,” Cassie said as she plopped down into the booth across from Elijah.
Elijah gave her a confused look. “I didn’t,” he said.
She frowned. “Exactly.”
Elijah sighed. “Our anniversary. I completely forgot.”
When Cassie plops down into the booth across from Elijah, it indicates that the scene is in a restaurant and that Cassie is the second one to arrive. The action is called a beat, and it helps to break up the dialogue and ground the conversation to a specific location. Elijah’s confused look and sigh are also action beats, as well as Cassie’s frown.
When you’re writing narrative nonfiction, consider what actions the people you’re writing about were doing as they were speaking and utilize those actions to ground the dialogue in your writing
Keep the dialogue in your story grounded by including action beats between dialogue.
Capture the Nuance
When you’re writing narrative nonfiction, you’re writing about real people, and real people have different nuances to the way they speak. If a person you’re writing about has a thick southern drawl, the story will feel more authentic if you include that nuance.
Just as fiction authors try to make each character sound different and distinct, you want to capture the differences in the people you’re writing about that make them sound unique when they speak.
Capture what makes each person in your story sound unique.
Writing Memorable Dialogue
Dialogue has the potential to be the thing readers remember most from your story and it helps to drive your story forward, so you owe it to them and your story to do it well. Use these strategies to give them something to remember.