Every ordinary life story is extraordinary!

Every ordinary life story is extraordinary!

Writing Dialogue in Your Memoir

Two people sitting on outside steps having dialogue

You don’t have to write very far into your memoir before you realize that dialogue can be a handy tool for you to convey action, emotion, passage of time and more. But even though you’ve read lots of books that have people talking to each other, writing dialogue in your memoir may not come naturally to you.

Sample from F. Scott Fitzgerald

Let’s analyze some dialogue from a classic: The Great Gatsby:

“Why candles?” objected Daisy, frowning. She snapped them out with her fingers. “In two weeks it’ll be the longest day in the year.” She looked at us all radiantly. “Do you always watch for the longest day of the year and then miss it? I always watch for the longest day in the year and then miss it.”

“We ought to plan something,” yawned Miss Baker, sitting down at the table as if she were getting into bed.

“All right,” said Daisy. “What’ll we plan?” She turned to me helplessly. “What do people plan?” Before I could answer her eyes fastened with an awed expression on her little finger.

“Look!” she complained. “I hurt it”

We all looked—the knuckle was black and blue.

“You did it, Tom,” she said accusingly. “I know you didn’t mean to but you did do it. That’s what I get for marrying a brute of a man, a great big hulking physical specimen of a—”

“I hate that word hulking,” objected Tom crossly, “even in kidding.”

“Hulking,” insisted Daisy.

4 Tips in Writing Dialogue

What can we learn from that passage? A lot!

1. When you insert dialogue from a new speaker, start a new paragraph. Sometimes, this applies even when it’s the same speaker. Consider this part:

“All right,” said Daisy. “What’ll we plan?” She turned to me helplessly. “What do people plan?” Before I could answer her eyes fastened with an awed expression on her little finger.

“Look!” she complained. “I hurt it”

Daisy is still the person speaking, but there’s a sentence from the narrator before Daisy’s next line. Also, she changes the subject. Because of those two reasons, Fitzgerald starts a new paragraph for “Look!”

2. Place the attribution either in the middle or at the end of the first sentence. Typically, you mention who’s saying the sentence at the end of it. But you can see in this sentence how you can place the attribution where you might have a comma or force a pause for effect:

“I hate that word hulking,” objected Tom crossly, “even in kidding.”

When you split the sentence like that, keep the second part lower-case. Another way to create the same feeling is to chop off the second part so that it’s just a sentence fragment. In that case, make the first word uppercase:

“I hate that word hulking,” objected Tom crossly. “Even in kidding.”

A common error is to go on for two or three sentences before attribution. For example, this does not work:

“Look! I hurt it,” she complained.

You can do:

“Look, I hurt it!” she complained. But you can’t have two separate sentences before attribution.

3.  There are lots of synonyms for “said” as well as words that inherently carry more meaning. Fitzgerald peppers this passage with a “yawned,” a “complained,” an “insisted,” and two uses of “objected,” in addition to going with “said” twice. Here and there he adds a modifier as well—objected Daisy, frowning; she said accusingly; objected Tom crossly. Don’t be afraid to help the reader by describing the way someone says something. Just don’t overdo it. The reader figures it out.

4. You can interrupt the quote with a narrative sentence or two to provide additional facts or description. This passage has three examples—“She snapped them out with her fingers”; “She looked at us all radiantly”; and “She turned to me helplessly.”

Punctuation in Dialogue

In dialogue, all punctuation goes inside the quotation marks. When you attribute after the first sentence, you end that sentence with comma-close-quote and place the period after the attribution. If the person asks a question or says something excitedly, the question mark or exclamation point goes inside the quotes.

This is different from quoting something within a question you’re asking or an exclamatory statement you’re making. Examples:

Can you believe she said, “I don’t remember any of that”?

I can’t believe she said, “I don’t remember any of that”!

Why Include Dialogue in a Memoir

You can avoid all dialogue and convey what people said within an ordinary narrative:

Snapping out the candles, Daisy asked why we needed them when it was so close to the longest day of the year, adding that she always looked forward to the longest day of the year but typically would miss its significance when it arrived. Miss Baker suggested planning something to mark that day this year. Daisy agreed and began a discussion of what to plan when suddenly her attention shifted to her injured finger.

Do you see why that’s not as good as dialogue? It’s more tedious, less lively. You don’t develop the same understanding of the characters as you do when you start hearing their voices in your head. Your memoir isn’t that different from a novel. Use dialogue where appropriate, and know how to use it when you do.


Freeform Writing Can Be the First Step of Your Memoir Journey

Woman writing on paper

If you know that you want to write your memoir but can’t seem to get the words on paper or screen, you may think that you need more direction. So you create an outline or a storyboard. You make a list of the stories you’ll tell. You look through old photographs, calendars and diaries to remind you of the important episodes of your life. Then, still, you can’t write it out the way you want. Something is blocking you.

This isn’t writer’s block; it’s an emotional block. You could write it if you could think it, but your memory is hazy. Maybe it feels like a blurry picture you can’t put into focus. Or there’s a high shelf, and you stand on your toes but still can’t see what’s on it. Or you’re trying to get clarity on a fuzzy idea, and you reach out, you grab it, but when you open your fist there’s nothing there. Somehow it eluded you again.

What you need may be less direction, not more. Freeform writing may unlock that memory block and bring you the clarity you’re looking for. But be prepared, because you may discover that you’ve been keeping a big secret from yourself. You’re keeping the secret from your own conscious mind.

If you think you can emotionally handle whatever it is you’re hiding, here are some tips for freeform writing.

  1. You can try to set aside a time for freeform writing, but don’t worry too much about planning. If you find yourself with one or two hours of unexpected open time, take it. Sometimes it’s easier when you don’t have time to anticipate and develop anxiety. Instead, you have the time so you just do it.
  2. Make sure, though, that your time will be uninterrupted. You must be alone.
  3. Most people will probably need quiet. But if you normally write with music in the background, you can try that. There are no rules, only whatever works for you.
  4. Use the instrument you prefer, and if it doesn’t work try another one. If normally you type on your laptop, try that first. If it doesn’t work, try a desktop if you have one or put pen to paper. The opposite is true, too. You may think that you feel more in touch with your writing when it’s handwritten instead of typed, but in this case you may need distance, an emotional barrier, to get out some painful memories. Keyboarding rather than handwriting may provide that for you.
  5. Just write. It’s called freeform writing because you write whatever is in your thoughts without any filter. If you think, “I feel stupid doing this,” write that. Keep writing. “It’s raining. I wish it would stop.” Anything that is inconsequential or may not even make sense will still get your mind thinking. Eventually you’ll write something that will give you a clue.
  6. Read closely what you wrote. If you didn’t have a breakthrough, maybe you can find those clues in there somewhere. Why did you write about the cat you owned as a child? What made you think of that? As you do more freeform writing, you may start to see patterns. Why do you always seem to write about a certain year in your life? Or why does one person in your life always come to mind? Your questions can lead you to answers and prepare your mind for your next writing session.
  7. Monitor your physical reactions. Does your body change as you write certain things? Maybe you’re breathing more heavily, sweating, experiencing nausea, turning red with anger or embarrassment, clenching your teeth or feeling a tight jaw in anger. Awareness of your body during freeform writing can help you pinpoint the thoughts that trigger those reactions.
  8. Be persistent, but don’t push harder than you can handle. You may feel that you’re very close to learning something, and at that point you should try to stick with it. Just don’t put your physical health in danger. You can pick it up next time if you have to.

Freeform writing is not only for memoir authors who want to uncover a traumatic episode. It also can help you just get comfortable writing out your experiences and deepest thoughts.

But if trauma is in your background, freeform writing can be the key that works for you if trying to think through it or talk through it hasn’t helped. Good luck to all of our memoir authors. Each of you has a unique path to follow.


Then just set up a chapter and start writing your memoir. Don’t worry about rules. There are no rules to writing your memoir; there are only trends. These trends are based on techniques and features identified in current top-selling memoirs. At best, they’re the flavor of the month. If you’re capturing your life in print for your family, for your own gratification or to inspire readers, rather than aiming to set off Hollywood screenplay bidding wars, these trends don’t even apply to you. You’ll write the memoir that suits you best, and it will be timeless, not trend-driven.There are no rules, but there are four steps:

1. Theme/framework
2. Writing
3. Editing/polishing
4. Self-publishing

You’ve researched this, too, and you’ve been shocked at the price for getting help with any one of those steps, much less all four. That’s because most memoir sites promise to commercialize your work. They’ll follow a formula based on current memoir trends, because they want to convince you that they can turn your memoir into a best-seller. These sites overwhelm you with unnecessary information not to help you, the memoir author, but to address Search Engine Optimization (SEO) algorithms so they can sell more.

That’s not what we do at Write My Memoirs. Our small community of coaches, writers and editors are every bit as skilled as any you’ll find, and we charge appropriately for their expertise and the time they’ll spend helping you craft a compelling, enjoyable read. But you won’t pay an upcharge for other websites’ commercialization, the marketing that follows, and the pages of intimidating “advice.” You can sell your book if you like—we have ISBNs available for you—but our organic process of capturing your story takes a noncommercial path.

If you want help with any or all of the four steps above, choose from our services or save money by selecting one of our packages. If you’d like to talk about what’s right for you, schedule a call. One year from now, you can be holding your published memoir in your hand. And at that point, it will be a big deal!