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.