By Boni Wagner-Stafford

August 28, 2018

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The Power of Dialogue in Nonfiction

If you're like many writers, you may be reluctant to use dialogue in nonfiction. After all, nonfiction is telling the story of what really happened. How can you know what was said if you weren’t there? However, just because you want to stick to the facts doesn’t mean you need to stick to dry, impersonal, indirect speech. Using direct speech in the form of dialogue in nonfiction is perfectly fine. In fact, it can greatly enhance the work and lead to a more engaging experience for your readers.

Dialogue in Nonfiction (and Fiction)

Dialogue acts as a hook to draw the reader in. It takes what could have been boring information and turns it into a mini story. This entices the reader to continue reading to find out what happened next. Here's what else dialogue will do for your nonfiction work:

  • Dialogue adds realism. Nearly every event involving people also includes dialogue in some form. Reproducing this dialogue when describing an event will make it seem more realistic.
  • It sets the scene. Dialogue can tell us much about the event being described: what led to the event, who was involved, what is happening now, and the experience of those involved.
  • It tells us more about the characters. The way people speak can tell us a lot about them. Their accent, for instance, can give away where they come from, their level of education, and so on. The type of slang they use can tell us more about their age and social circles, both past and present. Their speech patterns can tell us about their state of mind. Reproducing one sentence of what someone has said, the way they said it, can provide much more information than simply reporting it as indirect speech.
  • It moves the narrative forward. Using dialogue to describe a key event in the narrative can help the reader get a sense of what to expect next. It’s a dynamic way of sending the story into a specific direction.

Dialogue's Emotional Impact

Using dialogue in nonfiction can help ramp up the emotional impact for your readers. Let's compare these two examples.

Example #1: Diane was confused when the police arrested her. She didn’t know why she was being taken into custody.

Example #2: “What are you doing?” Diane was suddenly short of breath. As the policeman pulled her hands behind her back and closed the handcuffs, she couldn't believe this was happening. "Officer, what did I do wrong?”

In example #1, we're essentially 'telling' the reader what happened. In example #2, by making use of dialogue we're doing a somewhat better job of 'showing' the reader, of bringing them into the scene with you.

What About the Truth?

The challenge for nonfiction writers is how to add dialogue while remaining true to the truth. If you're going to invent part or all of the dialogue, doesn't that mean you've just wandered into the realm of fiction? No.

So, what should you do? Here are three main options to consider.

Actual Dialogue

If you’ve used interviews to conduct research, you’ll have a wealth of potential dialogue. If you’re writing your book in the first person, you can include entire sections of dialogue with your questions and the interviewee’s replies. Or, use snippets from what the interviewee said. You can also find dialogue in court documents and transcripts from other interviews.

What’s important is that you have the wording exactly right. Adoption the 'actual dialogue' option would mean that if you don’t have actual quotes to use, don’t include dialogue.

This approach is a good one to take if you’re writing about an explosive or controversial topic. In this case, be sure to keep all your source material, so you have proof of what was said. This will protect you in case of potential lawsuits.

Representative Dialogue

With representative dialogue, you don’t quote the person verbatim. Instead, you create dialogue that represents what they may have said. Memoirs, biographies and travelogues often include representative dialogue. Here's when you might want to use representative dialogue:

  • When you don't recall the actual words, for instance, but can remember the gist of an important conversation.
  • When you weren't there, but you got your information from someone who was.
  • Or perhaps you’ve used real quotes throughout your book, and suddenly, at a pivotal moment in the narrative, there’s no recorded dialogue that you can use. A little conjecture here is perfectly fine, as long as the dialogue still represents what could have been said.

For authentic representative dialogue in nonfiction, you need to take into account how the person would actually talk. A surfer dude will have a very different speech pattern than a university professor. If you know – or knew – the person yourself, it will be easy to imagine how they would have said something. If you never knew the person, however, you need to find out as much as you can about how they used language. Talk to the people who did know them. Read their letters and journals to get a sense of how they used language. Take note of any phrases or words they were fond of using.  Once you have a good idea of how the person talked, you’ll be able to imagine what they might have said in a given situation. Translate that into your dialogue in nonfiction.

Add a Disclaimer

Most readers will understand that it’s impossible for the writer to know exactly what all the characters in a non-fiction book said. They will assume that at least some of the dialogue is representative.

However, if you’re worried about being accused of misrepresentation, you can always add a disclaimer to your book. You can do this in the text itself, by using phrases like, “It’s hard not to imagine Diane saying …” or, “I remember Diane saying something along the lines of …”

Otherwise, state in the 'author’s notes' section that the dialogue is representative and not quoted verbatim.

Final Thought...

Think about the people you know who tell the best stories. Why is the story so much more compelling when they tell it? It’s most likely because they use dialogue when they tell an anecdote. They 'do the voices'. Maybe they even affect different accents. This immediately draws you in and makes the scene come alive. It’s one of the most important functions of dialogue in fiction. And you can – and should – feel free to use dialogue in nonfiction too.

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