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Let’s Talk about Dialogue in Nonfiction

Dialogue can speak volumes — why not try it in your nonfiction?

Photo by Quinn Dombrowski (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Think of a Southern drawl. Think of a heavy accent. Think of someone you know who uses slang or who routinely drops letters when they talk. (Hey man, how’re you? Workin’ hard!) All these elements of speech speak volumes about the subject at hand and can offer clues about ethnicity, location, past experience, history, affluence, sincerity — or even lack thereof.

Not sure how to get started capturing dialogue? Veteran journalist Steve Buttry offers some tips on verifying facts and ensuring accuracy in your interviews.

Trying your hand at nonfiction on your blog, be it memoir, reportage, or even podcasting? Dialogue is a great way to show vs. tell. Today we’ll look at three examples of dialogue that not only infuse their respective pieces with original detail, they help carry the story, allowing readers/listeners to reach their own conclusions.

Dialogue in reportage

Consider this excerpt from “Cops See it Differently, Part One,” a recent This American Life episode covering policing in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In this passage, reporter Brian Reed reflects on changes Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn has made within the police force and the influence those changes have had on Milwaukee citizens:

Brian Reed: As I spent time with members of the department, it was hard to pinpoint exactly what effect these changes have had, but I did get the sense that something had changed, even if it was sometimes intangible. For instance, I kept hearing certain words again and again. The most popular noun I heard, “community.” The most popular verb?

Police Officer 1: We’re here to engage and have a conversation.

Police Officer 2: The officers should be marketing all the opportunities to engage with us.

Police Officer 3: It has helped us to become more engaged in the community.

Police Officer 4: Our community engagement and the activities that we’ve been doing.

Police Officer 5: Building police legitimacy takes place when you directly engage.

The word “engage” appears five times in quick succession. At this point, it’s empty of meaning, similar to how a word, repeated in your head often enough, becomes nonsense. Reed’s technique is masterful here: without explicitly saying so, he not only allows snippets of dialogue to communicate that “engage” is meaningless, the passage evokes a sad irony: instead of “engaging,” why not simply talk with people, get to know them, and form real relationships based on trust and mutual respect? This is dialogue at its best — doing a lot of heavy lifting.

Dialogue in creative nonfiction

Into creative nonfiction? Here’s some advice on how dialogue can reveal character.

Consider this passage from Hunter S. Thompson’s “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved“:

In the air-conditioned lounge I met a man from Houston who said his name was something or other — “but just call me Jimbo” — and he was here to get it on. “I’m ready for anything, by God! Anything at all. Yeah, what are you drinkin?” I ordered a Margarita with ice, but he wouldn’t hear of it: “Naw, naw…what the hell kind of drink is that for Kentucky Derby time? What’s wrong with you, boy?” He grinned and winked at the bartender. “Goddam, we gotta educate this boy. Get him some good whiskey…

“Say,” he said, “you look like you might be in the horse business…am I right?”

“No,” I said. “I’m a photographer.”

“Oh yeah?” He eyed my ragged leather bag with new interest. “Is that what you got there — cameras? Who you work for?”

“Playboy,” I said.

He laughed. “Well goddam! What are you gonna take pictures of — nekkid horses? Haw! I guess you’ll be workin’ pretty hard when they run the Kentucky Oaks. That’s a race jut for fillies.” He was laughing wildly. “Hell yes! And they’ll all be nekkid too!”

What do you infer about “Jimbo”? What sort of person might he be, based on this snippet of his dialogue with Thompson? What might you infer about the Kentucky Derby itself from this snippet of dialogue? Again, here’s dialogue doing a lot of work to carry a story.

Here’s another example from our sister blog, Longreads, from Jeff Sharlet’s Instagram essay, “A Resourceful Woman.”

Mary Mazur, 61, set off near midnight to buy her Thanksgiving turkey. She took her plant with her. “He doesn’t like to be left alone,” she later explained. The plant rode in a white cart, Mary in her wheelchair. With only one hand to wheel herself, the other on the cart, she’d push the left wheel forward, switch hands, push the right. Left, right, cursing, until a sweet girl found her, and wheeled her into Crown Fried Chicken. “Do not forget my plant!” she shouted at the girl. I held the door.

A woman so loyal to her plant that she takes “him” out with her. This is an intriguing dialogue snippet that helps to show us what kind of person Mary is. It piques our curiosity and compels us to read further. Through the piece, Sharlett uses dialogue to great effect to help us learn a little bit about and get to know Mary.

And now, over to you

Which bits of dialogue have stuck with you over time — those quotes that evoke meaning in a story? Share them with us in the comments.

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  1. Because Mark Twain has himself become iconic, his genius can be overlooked. The dialogue of Huckleberry Finn stands as an example of totally immersing someone outside of a book and into a place and time. Very inspiring.

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      1. Well, most of the dialogue is so fun. Chapter 5 or 6, where Pap tries to get Huck to get some money from Judge Thatcher makes the point: When Pap talks, it’s all country and such, but it’s flowery and laced with arrogance. Huck also talks country, but his sentences are shorter and straight to the point. Two distinct characters, both talking in southern twang, both mostly uneducated, but you know who’s talking and who isn’t by the way the dialogue goes.

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  2. Jane Eyre…

    Strange!” he exclaimed, suddenly starting again from the point. “Strange that I should choose you for the confidant of all this, young lady; passing strange that you should listen to me quietly, as if it were the most usual thing in the world for a man like me to tell stories of his opera-mistresses to a quaint, inexperienced girl like you! But the last singularity explains the first, as I intimated once before: you, with your gravity, considerateness, and caution were made to be the recipient of secrets. Besides, I know what sort of a mind I have placed in communication with my own: I know it is one not liable to take infection: it is a peculiar mind: it is a unique one. Happily I do not mean to harm it: but, if I did, it would not take harm from me. The more you and I converse, the better; for while I cannot blight you, you may refresh me.”

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  3. THANK YOU. I have been asking myself for months how to use dialogue in nonfiction to bring some life to it. Tomorrow I’ll be writing about meeting someone who is transsexual for the first time as part of the #1000VoicesforCompassion challenge. And now I have some ideas, “yeah!”

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  4. “Where my soul went during that swoon I cannot tell. Whatever she saw, or wherever she travelled in her trance on that strange night she kept her own secret; never whispering a word to Memory, and baffling imagination by an indissoluble silence. She may have gone upward, and come in sight of her eternal home, hoping for leave to rest now, and deeming that her painful union with matter was at last dissolved. While she so deemed, an angel may have warned her away from heaven’s threshold, and, guiding her weeping down, have bound her, once more, all shuddering and unwilling, to that poor frame, cold and wasted, of whose companionship she was grown more than weary.

    I know she re-entered her prison with pain, with reluctance, with a moan and a long shiver. The divorced mates, Spirit and Substance, were hard to re-unite: they greeted each other, not in an embrace, but a racking sort of struggle.”

    Villette by Charlotte Brontë

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  5. I haven’t yet included hardly any dialogue in my non-fiction blog posts. I have quoted a person and used that quote as a launching pad to add my perspective. It is useful if used judiciously. I try to italicize or pull out their comment to highlight in the blog post text.

    Am almost afraid of including more dialogue threads, for fear of lengthening my blog posts. I doubt my readers want Long Reads post lengths. No, I doubt audioclips is the way to go for me.

    Any other ideas without lengthening blog posts?

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  6. I don’t have a particular dialogue in mind, but every time I read books by Haruki Murakami, his dialogue just always have an impact. Perhaps it’s because he uses contrast and symbolism a lot that requires you to think in order to understand. I love that kind of writing. Usually his characters are also very aloof, but they’re not entirely readable.

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  7. I love to start a non-fictional blog post with dialogue, so reading this was most helpful. Here’s an example-

    “Don’t be ridiculous!”

    My friend had just told me he was thinking of getting married in four days time. On the beach. And I was to be a witness.

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  8. Hi Krista, great post! Dialogue can mean the difference between interesting reading or not so much. I love to listen to conversations and find it fascinating how people speak differently according to what part of the country they hail from. The dialogue in “The Help” really sets to mood and tone and takes the reader to those troubled times, as does To Kill A Mockingbird.

    Dialogue is so important in order for a story to read true. For example, people in New York stand ON line. Down South, (and perhaps in other places) we stand IN line.

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  9. A word of caution about using “dialogue” in nonfiction: as soon as you put someone’s words between quotation marks you are effectively telling the reader “this is precisely what this person said”. So what’s the problem? Well, while it sounds a simple thing to quote someone accurately it is actually very difficult.

    People tend not to speak in grammatical clauses, so if you literally transcribe what they said you can make them seem like an idiot, when actually they expressed themselves clearly in speech. There is often a strong temptation to “correct” their speech for presentation in print – but are you then justified in using quotation marks?

    You can justify it in a creative piece like the Hunter S. Thompson report on the Kentucky Derby, where the intention is to convey an impression of characters and events. But be wary if you publish something that purports to be an accurate record of what was said (say at a public meeting). For me, “dialogue” is what I hear in plays and movies, and quotes are what I read in newspaper reports.

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