Lisa Dale Norton
Lisa Dale Norton


Your Life As Story: Writing Narrative Nonfiction
Dialogue in Memoir, Part II

by Lisa Dale Norton

June 2008

Dialogue in Memoir, Part II

In April I talked about the basics of recreating dialogue in Memoir. Here are some tips for using dialogue to create characters in Memoir.

"Really listen to those memories you are conjuring. Tune in. "

Here are some things to remember about using dialogue if it's a new piece of craft to you:

People talk in fractured snippets with lots of circuitous meanderings and jumps in logic. You can not capture this word for word, and if you did it would be boring and confusing, but you can capture some of it to represent the flavor of the characters and the event. Really listen to those memories you are conjuring. Tune in. Put on your headphones and bring those characters back to life. Listen in your memory to their conversation ticks and fit in a few, but stick with the essence of the message.


Begin the line of dialogue with the spoken words rather than the attribution. Instead, tag the attribution onto the end of the quote. That way the words become the focus, and the attribution simply exists to keep the reader on task.

"…it's all about making the craft invisible."

"Said" is the preferred attribution. Don't bother thinking up a bunch of cool replacements for it. "Said" works because it's invisible. It doesn't call attention to itself, and remember, it's all about making the craft invisible.

"…you can develop that character further by attaching to the dialogue some movement… "

Action tags: When a character speaks, you can develop that character further by attaching to the dialogue some movement the character makes in space and time. This action tag comes after the quote itself, and in many cases it simply replaces the attribution (he said, or she said). Instead, you assign an action to the character so the reader not only associates the line of dialogue with the appropriate character, but also learns something more about that character in the same moment.

Here's an example:

"The car's at the end of the street." Kate opened the refrigerator and stared. She chewed on her bottom lip.

"What are you looking for?" I pushed the mail aside. It was't like her to graze in the middle of the day. The way I remember it, I placed my hand on her back. She was trembling.

"Tom said he'd come and get it." She slammed the door. The jars inside clattered. "Oh, I don't know. Something sweet. Something sour. Something!"

She turned toward me. Her eyes glistened with tears. "Oh honey," I said and wrapped my arms around her. "How far is it? I'll go. Let's get you some tea."

Later, Kate would tell the story differently. She does't remember my hand on her back, but I do, and that's what matters. Tom showed up a couple hours later, and Kate remembers this differently, too.

Here's what I recall: He knocked softly then pulled the back door open. "Kate, you in there?"

I was standing at the stove. "Come on in Tom." I shook some oregano into the bubbling sauce …blah-blah-blah.

"We are the keepers of out own stories. We make our own truths…"

Notice the action tags above, and the way the conversation doesn't go linear at first. The two characters loop around in topic they are talking about: the car/the refrigerator/Tom and the underlying issue. People talk like this.

Also, notice how you can weave in thoughts about the fluidity of memory. The memoirist can do this, should feel invited to do this. We are the keepers of our own stories. We make our own truths, and partly how we do that is by acknowledging the fragile, ephemeral quality of memory. Kate's memory is different than the "I" character's memory, but that doesn't negate either of those truths.

"If you are serious about being a writer, you have to get serious about the craft."

Pay close attention to the way the quotation marks are used. Notice when the piece of dialogue ends with a comma or a period, and yes, it is your responsibility to learn such stuff. Maybe you already know it. Cool. Maybe you don't. But you can learn it. There are tons of books that cover this stuff. If you are serious about being a writer, you have to get serious about the craft.

Lisa Dale Norton
Lisa Dale Norton's new book about memoir, SHIMMERING IMAGES: A HANDY LITTLE GUIDE TO WRITING MEMOIR, will be released by St. Martin 's Press in Spring '08. She is the author of Hawk Flies Above: Journey to the Heart of the Sand hills (Picador USA/St. Martin 's Press), a work combining memoir and nature writing. Lisa teaches for the UCLA Writers' Extension Program and speaks nationally on the power of story and the process of writing your own. She lives in Santa Fe.