Dialogue in Memoir: An Element of Fiction

Most who write memoir have an important story to tell of surviving hardship or letting us go on an amazing adventure with them into new worlds of some kind. We know that the best memoirs come to life on the page because the author uses elements of fiction, such as dialogue.  At the same time, a memoir writer wants to be honest and write what only happened. No stories of abuse that didn’t happen and no mountain not climbed. However, to use dialogue is a tricky venture.

Readers assume the dialogue in memoirs is written verbatim but who can remember important conversations — especially those dating back to childhood — word for word? Most authors recall either a central line of the dialogue or some semblance of what was said, and construct the dialogue around those words. It’s the intention of the conversation that we aim to recreate and remain true to.

Dialogue makes the memoir seem “here and now” to the reader. It hooks the reader into what is happening to the characters.  It pushes the story ahead. The goal of the author is to write a dialogue that is true to the main event, true to their perception of what was said. For example, when a mother exchanges a dead bird for a new bird that looks almost like the old bird and the child notices the difference, you have a main event in truth-telling for a child who is later diagnosed schizophrenic.

“Who’s that in Petie’s cage?” I ask as I stand tiptoe up to the table that holds my pet bird.

“Pettie,” says my mother with a toss of her red hair, smoking her cigarette.

“No it’s not. Pettie doesn’t have that yellow spot on his head.”

“Don’t doubt my word. That’s your Petie. If I say it’s Pettie, it’s Pettie.”

Never mind that schizophrenia is a brain disorder. We know that genetics plays a large part in this mental illness. Still, there can be familial ways of handling the truth that can add to a person’s propensity to this disorder.

And we may want to explore other examples where truth is handled weirdly in the memoir. And, instead of making the mother the “bad mother,” we can explore why she might lie about her son’s bird. In this case, the author showed as the story unfolds that the mother was so overwhelmed with feelings that she couldn’t face her young, most sensitive child having to face death.

The dialogue makes the incident crystal clear. The words don’t have to be exact as long as the attitude is shown, the event is detailed enough.

Have you used dialogue in your memoir? How have you handled dialogue in your memoir?  What do you remember most? How do you remember details?


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