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Monday, April 18, 2016

Truth In Dialogue In Memoir Writing

A question that comes up fairly often among those who write memoir pieces is one that gives us pause for thought. The question? When you write dialogue in a memoir, how exact must you be?

Look at this logically. The woman above may be writing about something that happened when she was 12 years old, something that influence her in a big way. Maybe it was something a teacher said to her. It's doubtful she will remember the exact words but she will know the gist of what was said. There are times, however, that words spoken many years ago remain in our memory bank exactly as they were uttered. 

As long as she knows the meaning of what was said, this writer can create the dialogue to come as close as possible to what the teacher said. We want to get the meaning across to the reader and showing it by using dialogue is going to be better than telling us what the teacher said. If we can see the teacher saying those words, they will be of greater importance.

There are times you can paraphrase instead of giving exact words. Write something like I heard Grandma say that my father was a poor provider. You would not want to use this technique exclusively throughout the memoir, however. It might become distracting. Use it, but sparingly.

If the dialogue is something you heard frequently, you are going to get it exactly right. I cannot tell you how many times my dad said to me..."That's right, you didn't think!" Always used in response to my explaining that I hadn't thought before I acted. Oh come on, some of you were there, too way back when. Those five words are the ones he used and I've never forgotten them. So, if I'm writing about my growing-up years, I am most likely going to use those exact words of his rather than paraphrase. And I'd also better add something to show the way in which he said it, too. 

There are writers who prefer to avoid the issue by eliminating dialogue completely. If I don't use it, no one can fault me on its validity. True, but you'll lose some of the personal feel to the memoir. 

Do not embellish what was said to serve a purpose--to up the tension or or some emotion that might not have actually been there. In other words, don't use made-up dialogue to make the writing easier for yourself. Remember than memoir is not fiction. It is something that actually did happen.

Don't fret if your memoir dialogue is not word for word exactly as spoken long ago. Stay as true as you can to the meaning and move on. The truth in dialogue is only a small part of writing memoir. 


  1. Thanks for your commentary here. I agree with your suggestion to go ahead and write dialogue as though you were in the midst of the action. Readers assume that you're catching the speaker's intent, plus it gives life to your story.

    1. Thank you for commenting, Jeanne. I think some people wrestle with the dialogue part of writing memoir.