Writing Dialogue in Your Memoir: Human or Robot?

humanorrobotIn a memoir, you’re writing about real people.  They should talk like real people, too. But not…exactly like real people.

Yeah, it can be tricky. But it’s not impossible.

Let me show you two different examples of dialogue, and then we’ll talk about what’s not-quite-right about them.

Example #1:

“Hello. You have reached Johnson’s Department Store.  How may I help you?”

I didn’t expect anyone to answer the phone so early.  “Hello,” I said, “My name is Marvin Miles. I am calling you this morning with a question.  I would like to speak with someone in the toy department.  Would you please connect me with the toy department?”

“Yes, I will,” the woman replied.  “Would you please hold on for a moment?”

“Yes, I will hold,” I said.

Next, a man came on the line.  “This is the toy department.  My name is Bill.  How many I help you, please?”

“Hello.  I am calling with a question about a toy.”

“Yes, sir.  What is your question?”

“I would like to know if you have a jump rope for sale which glows in the dark.  I would also like the jump rope to have yellow handles.  The handles must also be made of wood.  Do you have a jump rope like the one I am describing?”

The man thought for a moment.  “I do not know if we have a jump rope like that.  Would you please hold the line?  I will go and check our jump rope stock for you.”

Sounds like two computers talking, right?  I mean, who talks like that?  It’s possible somebody does, but you wouldn’t exactly think they were…well, normal, would you? That’s some pretty unnatural, stilted-sounding dialogue!  And tough to read, too.

Example #2:

“I can’t believe he said…oh my god, what he said!  He said…he said she was, like, the – what did he say again?  Oh my god, like she was the worst boss he ever had!  The worst boss.  The worst boss, Britt, the worst boss.  You know?”

Brittany tossed her hair back. “No way I can’t even, I mean I can’t even!  You know, I’m just thinking, like, that’s um, so harsh.  Uh…wait, do you know if he—“

“Oh my god Britt, wait, didn’t you say you wanted a milkshake before?”  I noticed the milkshake stand out of the corner of my eye.

“Totally!” Brittany’s eyes lit up.  “Chocolate for me, chocolate for me!  Oh, like, of course!  Of course, red light when we’re about to cross the street.  I’m desperate, here!  Desperate, you know?”

“Desperate for milkshakes!” I agreed.

“Desperate for milkshakes!” Brittany repeated. 

“Is there, like, one of those, um…you know…those button thingies you can push to make the traffic light turn green, or something?”

Brittany looked around.  “On my god, is it like that thingy on the, um, the pole over there?”


“There,” Brittany pointed.

“That’s the thingy!  That’s the thingy!  There is a thingy to change the light!  Hurry up, push it, push it.”

Just then the light changed and we proceeded across the street.

“So what were we talking about…?  Oh, yeah!  I’m just, ugh!  Can’t believe it!  Is he going to be fired now, or like put on whatchamacallit, probation?”

Wasn’t that annoying to read?

We really don’t want to read dialogue exactly as people speak it.  Real people stumble over their words, they hesitate, they wander in conversation, they say “uh” and “um” and “like” and “you know”, repeatedly.

In fact, if you had someone transcribe every audible conversation you have, precisely, you might find your own words difficult to follow on paper.  Authentic conversations that feel easy and understandable in the real world can seem downright unintelligible when written word-for-word.

So, as writers, we want to strive for dialogue that is a representation of real conversation.  It should feel authentic, but “cleaned up” – just enough so that it isn’t a chore to read.

humanorrobot2That said, I’m going to risk confusing you a little here.  Because “uh” and “um” and “like” and “you know” have their place in good writing, too.

The example I gave above was purposely over-the-top.  But remember, we also don’t want to clean up our dialogue so much that it sounds computerized.  The key to realistic dialogue falls somewhere between the two extremes.

I found a passage from Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs that offers a great example of a casual conversation between two people.  It’s not necessarily correct, concise English, but it is how real people interact.

For example, one line of dialogue includes the informal use of “like”: “…you were like this tall.”

There are sentence fragments, including this two-word line of dialogue, “A little.” 

In this sentence fragment, we see the conversational use of “you know:” “Yeah, well.  You know, now that…”

The key is to strike a balance between realism and readability.

When writing about real-life conversations in your memoir, remember that it’s unnecessary to convey every exchange word-for-word. In fact, doing so can make your writing painful to read.

Try sharing your dialogue with a friend — preferably an avid reader. Ask them:

  • What bores you about this conversation?
  • What annoys you?
  • What parts of the conversation did you most enjoy?
  • If you were going to cross out any words, phrases or lines from this conversation, what would they be?
  • What did this conversation tell you about the characters?
  • What did you learn about the story from this conversation?

To get one-on-one help with your memoir, request a coaching session by phone. 

Kim Brittingham is the author of Write That Memoir Right Now (AudioGo/Blackstone, 2013) and Read My Hips: How I Learned to Love My Body, Ditch Dieting and Live Large (Random House, 2011). 

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