Using Dialogue in Creative Nonfiction

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Using Dialogue in Creative Nonfiction

It can be difficult to allow ourselves to use direct dialogue in creative nonfiction. After all, memory is faulty. We can’t recall conversations word-for-word, so why try? The answer is that we need to try, because insofar as nonfiction attempts to be an honest record of the observant mind’s reflective movements, dialogue matters. We recall voices, not summaries; we observe scenes in our head, not expository paragraphs.

– From Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction, Brenda Miller & Suzanne Paola

As a creative nonfiction writer, you can take some allowances in re-creating dialogue. No one has a perfect memory; as always it’s a blend of fact and imagination. But be careful. If you’re uncertain about a piece of dialogue and it changes our understanding of the speaker or story, you should think hard before using it. You need to feel certain that your dialogue represents the truth – about personalities, situations, conflicts and stories.
Here are some good rules for using dialogue:
Dialogue that advances the plot of your story is good. Expository dialogue is bad.

Dialogue can move action forward in a story, and it can suggest the conflicts that drive the story. Avoid dialogue that simply offers information. Never use dialogue as a cheap trick to insert expository information, like in this example: “I’m so glad we became friends this summer at Camp Lee-kee-Tentflap.” When deciding whether to use a piece of dialogue, ask yourself “Will this move the story forward?”

We usually speak simply

We nearly always speak in simple sentences, in plain English not compound-complex ones with fancy vocabulary. We might say, “I can’t talk right now. I’m in a hurry.” We aren’t likely to say, “I am currently unable to stop and converse with you, as I must hasten off to another engagement for which I am overdue.” On the other hand, we do sometimes speak in winding run-on sentences, especially when we’re trying to get a lot of information out.

We don’t always speak grammatically

We frequently speak in sentence fragments and ungrammatical snippets. For example, we’re more likely to ask someone, “You ok?” than “Are you feeling ok?” While it’s important that we understand what the speakers are saying, don’t try to force ungrammatical speech into something proper. It will sound phony.

Dialogue reveals character

Good dialogue captures the voice of the speaker, and can reveal character. Pay attention to an individual’s speech – the speed, cadences, pauses, repeated or favorite words or phrases. For example, you can ignore the earlier point about simplicity if you’re trying to capture the speech of a stuffy English teacher who speaks complex, long-winded sentences because he likes the sound of his own voice and the chance to show off what he knows.

Dialogue suggests tone, attitude, and emotion

Dialogue can convey the tone or attitude of a speaker, especially when combined with description (details about body language, gestures, etc.) Don’t follow each speech tag with an adverb, like “angrily” or “sadly.” If you feel the need to use those words, ask yourself why the dialogue itself doesn’t seem to contain those feelings.

Let dialogue “speak” for itself.

Beware of elaborate tag lines—lines that identify the speaker (“he said,” “she argued,” etc.) In a dialogue between two people, taglines are often unnecessary after the first two. When you use them, try to stick to the basics, like “said” or “asked” – tags that are almost invisible and don’t distract from the dialogue. Sometimes it’s good to vary your tags, but if all of your speakers “retort,” “exclaim,” “expound,” “expostulate,” “muse,” “blather,” “insinuate,” or “interject,” you’ll just distract us from the dialogue.

Some tips for formatting dialogue:

  • Punctuation goes inside the quotation marks (“I’ll see you later,” I said. / “I’m not going!” I screamed.)

  • Start a new paragraph (including indent) each time you switch speakers:
    “It’s perfect,” I said to her, admiring the beautiful leather-bound notebook, its blank pages so inviting. “How did you know?”
    “I thought of you when I saw it,” she answered. “It reminded me of how you always say we all invent ourselves every day. This is a place where you can do it.”

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