Memoir Writing: Dialogue vs. Narrative

One might argue that dialogue is one of the most important—and difficult—pieces of a book. Done well, it gives life to a book in a way that nothing else could. Done poorly, it can ruin the book entirely. And this is when dialogue is purely fictional.

A memoir takes dialogue to a whole different level, as all that dialogue is (theoretically) a carbon copy of something a person once actually said. Of course, even the best and cleverest of us will never be able to remember every word we said and heard, and so dialogue in memoirs requires a level of suspension of disbelief.

Because the suspension of disbelief must be propagated doubly well—the dialogue doesn’t just need to sound like it came from a “real” fictional character, it must be very similar to something your cousin Susie once would have said, along with her patented head toss and giggle—it might seem easier to leave the dialogue out of a memoir altogether. However, the correct mix of narrative, description, and dialogue is an essential part of telling any story.

Take this verbal story, told at the same (fictional) party in two different ways:

Amy: “Man, you shoulda seen. Chelsea was lecturing Tate about being clumsy, and she accidentally tossed her glass out the window, and Tate sprayed Pepsi out his nose.”


Amy: “Man, you shoulda seen. Tate tripped over the dog on his way in, and Chelsea starts in on him: ‘Tate, you need to start watching where you’re going. I know you’re not blind. There’s sixteen other people in this room, and none of them tripped over the dog…’ and as she’s gesturing around at everyone with her glass, it slips from her hand and goes zing! right out the open window. And there’s this silence…and then you hear the glass smash on the sidewalk a couple stories down, and Tate had just taken a drink of his Pepsi, and ptthbt, out his nose it comes.”

The mix of narrative, description, and dialogue makes the second version of the story far more interesting, immediate, and alive than the first. The first story might garner a “hrm” and a courtesy chuckle. The second requires more attention and interaction from the listeners, and gathers the listeners closer to the original story. But of course, it doesn’t just come down to dialogue or description or narration: much like baking a cake, it requires the proper mix of ingredients.

It’s the same with a written story:

Miranda was so beautiful that the first time I met her, I couldn’t even speak to her.


Jim tapped a brunette on the shoulder. “Andy, this is Miranda Collins. Miranda, Andy Taft.”

“Pleasure,” Miranda said.

“Gurk,” I said, and barely managed to shake her hand.


Jim pulled me aside all of a sudden, and tapped a nearby brunette on the shoulder. Her ass was curvy in a short red dress.

“Andy, this is Miranda Collins. Miranda, Andy Taft.”

But then she turned around, and her smile was the sweetest thing I’d ever seen. She stuck her free hand out at me. “Pleasure.”

“Gurk,” I said. My stomach dropped into my knees. I opened my mouth, and still nothing came out. I shook her hand limply, and pushed past them to the refreshments table.

When I finally managed to look back at them, they were both chuckling.

Narration, description, and believable dialogue come together create the immediacy that’s needed to draw a reader into your story. Without it, your memoir will be nothing more than a dry historical text.

Creating Living People, Not Characters

Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “when writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.”

Be Authentic

Hemingway was big on authenticity. If you aren’t speaking from real, personal experience, the characters you are writing will be fake, and people won’t relate to them.

Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up writing what you think people will want to read; especially if the author is focused on writing a masterpiece. But the truth is, writers become famous for their authenticity—for their absolute love of the written word, life, and real experience.

Write From Your Heart

Writing is a relationship; if you fake it, the relationship with falter. If the writer becomes less attached to their story, it becomes impossible to create living, breathing people. The characters become stereotypical and distant.

Good writers didn’t become famous because they were trying to write award-winning novels, they became famous because they wrote from the heart. Steinbeck wrote countless stories taking place in his homeland. Angelou wrote from her personal hardship and experiences. Hemingway didn’t write anything that he didn’t believe in.

Write From Your Experience

Hemingway emphasized this point when he said, “people in a novel, not skillfully constructed characters, must be projected from the writers assimilated experience, from his knowledge, from his head, from his heart and from all there is of him.”

You must know the person you are writing about completely; write about your grandmother who practically raised you on tea and cinnamon rolls and spent her free time watching the birds outside her window—or take parts of her to create someone altogether new but authentic. Create a living, breathing person based on real people who made an impact on you.

Know Your Characters, Write Them Well

An author should dedicate a significant amount of time getting to know the main characters. Spend time writing about the main characters outside of the actual story; write about who they are and what they like, and know how they would respond to different scenarios. Stay away from clichés and stereotypes. The reader should not be predicting how the character will respond to certain situations. The character should surprise and inspire the reader. The reader should feel as if the author is slowly pulling back the layers of the character’s personality: the more you read, the more you know about them.

Know your character’s greatest ambition or secret goal, and make sure the reader knows it, too. Also, slowly revealing secrets to the reader about the character is a good way to make him or her feel a part of your character’s life. The character should at some point be vulnerable. Think about the people in your life, how they have revealed their secrets to you, how they have trusted you and been angry with you. Let the emotion come alive.

True, dynamic people make a good story. Human beings are interesting, diverse and complex. There is so much to write about when writing about real people. We don’t want to read about cliché relationships or stereotypical characters. We want to see people interact with passion, we want to see families fighting, we want to see real conversation.

And maybe, if we are true to ourselves and if we are lucky, we will create characters with “more than one dimension and they will last a long time.1



1 Popova, Maria. “Hemingway on Writing, Knowledge, and the Dangers of Ego.” Brain Pickings. April 19, 2013. Accessed August 25, 2014.

8 Insights to Becoming a Better Writer

We can always become better writers; that is perhaps what motivates us to write and, at times, keeps us from finishing our work. Writing is a constant effort to learn and grow in our profession. As Ernest Hemingway once said, “we are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” Here is a list we’ve come up with to keep us on the right track.

1. Choose a subject you personally care about. If you have ever tried to write about something you don’t care about, you know how extremely exhausting and difficult that can be. All good writers start by choosing something they personally relate to. Maybe start with the place you grew up, or a person who inspired you. You have to love your story before your reader will.

2. Stay Organized. There is nothing worse than having a bunch of good ideas and not being organized enough to get them down on paper or remember where you put your notebook. It may seem simple, but staying organized as a writer by keeping your writing in a notebook or having an organized folder on your desktop can be life saving.

3. Have an outline. This is an extension of staying organized. Even though you might not write your book from start to finish, it is crucial to have an outline. The outline makes it possible for you to know what parts of the book need to get done. It also keeps you focused; you can leave and come back where you left off.

4. Work through the first draft. No first draft is perfect, but once everything is on paper, it’s so much easier to work through and edit. You may find that you often change most of what you originally wrote, but at least you’ll able to work through it once your ideas are already written down.

5. Keep yourself inspired. This may be as simple as writing in a place that inspires you—in a park, on a street corner, in an art museum. Some people find that they can think clearer in a quiet place, usually outside around something beautiful. Whether you prefer being around the hustle and bustle of the city, or the quiet confines of your home, put yourself in places that inspire you.

6. Unplug. In this day and age, it is difficult to stay focused. There are so many distractions on the Internet, especially if you have Twitter, Facebook, and a personal blog. Take time to allow yourself to not be tempted by the distractions on the web, and don’t even open your Internet browser—you can even look up apps to block social media for you while you write (try SelfControl or Freedom).

7. Have no fear. Even the best authors know that writing is not a skill that can be completely mastered. We have to keep writing regardless of if we think our work will ever be perfect. Because, honestly, writing is a skill that will constantly be shaped by your experience and your knowledge. Don’t compare yourself to others, and write from the heart.

8. Read. Good writers read…a lot. Of course there are techniques that we can learn about writing, but when a person is well read, they know the ins and outs of what good writing looks like. Keep reading and allow it to improve your writing without you even knowing it.

Five Tips for Writing a Memoir

Human beings are laced with narrative. Every year marks a new story to tell, new experiences to share with others, and new hardships to learn from. We all have a story. We can all identify with Maya Angelou when she said, “there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.” We desire to be known and to know others. What better way to tell your story than by writing about it? Here are some tips to think about when writing your memoir, especially when you are just starting out.

1. Write your story in 3–4 sentences.

A good exercise to begin with is writing your story in three sentences. What is the main point you want to get across in your story? You may not even know the answer to this when you are starting out, but as you continue to play with this exercise, you’ll start to realize what it is you truly want to communicate to your audience. Write down the reasons you wanted to write a memoir in the first place or think of a specific scene of your life that inspired you to tell your story.

2. Tell the truth, no matter how painful.

It is a difficult and grueling process to write a memoir. You have to deal with memories you may have been suppressing, or don’t necessarily want to uncover. Especially when writing the first draft, it is important to tell the whole truth, no matter how ugly or difficult that may be. This process makes it possible for you to weed out what is or isn’t important. Usually, there is a tendency to leave out the painful experiences, but most of the time, those experiences are the ones worth telling.

3. Your story is important.

As you write your story, you may question why you thought your story should be published. There often comes doubt when dealing with your own life. But the truth is, your story is important. You don’t have to be a celebrity or a hero. We want to read about everyday people who do the extraordinary. People can relate to anyone who shares their story well.

4. Think about how you want to tell it: tense and style.

In the beginning of the process, it’s important to know how you want to tell your story. Are you going to be writing from the past or the present? Are you writing from your childhood-self or from your adult-self? It might be confusing for readers if you jump around between the past and the present. You should also consider telling your story linearly. Memoirs are usually easier to follow when readers can see how your story has progressed over time.

5. Know where you want to end up.


It is important to know where you want your story to go. You might not know all of the details in between, but it is crucial to know where you want to begin and where you want to end. Ask yourself questions like: “Why am I telling my story?”, “Who do I want to tell my story to?”, “What have I learned?”, and “Where am I going now?” These questions will help you to narrow down what you should definitely write about and what you shouldn’t.


Writing a memoir has many benefits. The process may be difficult and frustrating, but also enlightening and therapeutic. Stick with it and be heartened; not everyone has the courage to shed light on their past and share it with the public.