Let’s talk about writing dialogue in a memoir -- a creative nonfiction gray area that may have you pondering: What were granny’s exact words as she stood by the chicken coop on that fateful day?
Unlike fiction writers, memoirists are bound by actual events and conversations. In a memoir, readers expect the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. But do you really need to recall dialogue word-for-word?
Fortunately, a memoir can be true and also have creative elements. While the right balance of "truth" to "creative" may vary from writer to writer and story to story, here are some basic strategies for writing memoir dialogue:
Just say it. If you have access to a written account of the dialogue, you don’t have to worry about trying to remember every word -- it’s right there in black and white. Diaries, letters, public records, and even audio recordings are excellent resources for recalling what was said and by whom.
Or, say what you mean. If you don’t have access to the actual words spoken, you can use representative dialogue. This technique captures the spirit of what was said and the emotion behind the words. "Laura, the bears have eaten your turkey sandwich!" conveys the same basic information as "Laura, the grizzlies have eaten your lunch!" The exact wording isn’t as important as the fact that Laura has no more food. Also, she really ought to get away from a place frequented by bears.
Remember when... You can give the reader a heads-up that the dialogue is paraphrased by using a cue such as, "I remember Meg said something like...," instead of trying to recreate the dialogue verbatim. Just don’t use this technique too often or your story will get clunky.
Fill in the gaps. When you recall most of what was said, but are unsure of a particular retort or statement, you can simply summarize that particular information. "His response was an outburst of vehement denials."
Say nothing. To avoid having to recollect the exact text of a discussion, some memoirists choose to avoid using dialogue. Instead, the gist of what was said is summed up in a descriptive account. However, keep in mind that a story written without any dialogue at all is going to be much less engaging for the reader.
Don’t say anything you’ll regret. While it’s not necessary to literally duplicate what was said, be careful not to take too many liberties. Don’t embellish for the sake of creating tension or excitement that isn’t really there. Stay true to the voice of the person being quoted. And your colonial grandfather shouldn’t be using a trendy phrase like “my bucket list” unless he actually wrote a list of his favorite buckets.
Whichever method you choose for writing dialogue in a memoir, as long as you stay as close as possible to the original conversation, the quality of your story will speak for itself.
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