Dialogue in Nonfiction: Is it Out of Bounds?

by | May 14, 2021 | Weekly Prompt

The question of whether to include dialogue in creative nonfiction strikes at the heart of a larger controversy about creative nonfiction: how true must it be? In a genre defined by what it’s not—fictional; made up—plenty of people have nevertheless argued to seemingly no end about whether it must *really* not be what it, by definition, isn’t. Is there room for the fuzziness of memory? Is it okay to create composite characters? Is there a crucial difference between lowercase t truth that can be fact-checked and capital T Truth that is higher, or deeper, so that getting at those bigger Truths might require some tinkering with the actual, possibly inconvenient facts? 

Famously, or at least famously for those of us following the controversies within creative nonfiction, John D’Agata (who has edited a couple wonderful anthologies of creative nonfiction) makes the even bolder claim that the facts can be fudged in nonfiction if the fudge simply more poetic than the facts. When confronted with a discrepancy in his own writing, he copped to it thus: “The rhythm of ‘34’ was better in the sentence than the rhythm of ‘31,’ so I changed it.”

He said that in 2012, which itself was several years after an even more famous dust-up about James Frey, who fabricated scenes wholesale in his memoir, A Million Little Pieces. Oprah was involved, they both had to apologize, it was a whole thing. So the debate is, in a way, a little played out, a little stale. 

But the question still confronts the writer: is it okay to put dialogue in narrative nonfiction given that there’s no way you could remember or find out what, verbatim, someone said? Dialogue gives texture and character and movement and emotion to the writing. It lends vivacity to memory. But to include dialogue when recounting a memory of even a week before is, unless you recorded a conversation, definitely part recreated. 

I had one professor who recommended signaling to the reader in some creative way that the narrative didn’t adhere 100% to fact. Like titling your memoir The Liar’s Club, for instance. Or by going meta and writing about the unreliability of memory. 

Or maybe you are in the D’Agata camp and believe that lyricism overrides fealty to fact. In that case, dialogue away. 

On the other hand, maybe you fall on the side of being as faithful as possible to representing things as they really happened, as they really are. Sure, there’s always a chance we’re misremembering something, but there’s a firm line, for some, between recalling things with as much clarity as possible and, on the other side, connecting the dots for the sake of the story when our memory fails us. For those writers, almost any dialogue but the most sparing is a bridge too far into fiction territory. 

Even for those in the D’Agata camp, you have to consider the reader. There’s a suspension of disbelief in nonfiction also. Too much dialogue might be distracting, so that the reader is too busy thinking about whether someone could possibly remember all that, instead of staying immersed in the narrative. 

Prompt

Think about it. Where is the line, for you, with dialogue in nonfiction? Play with the question by writing about a conversation and deciding how to represent it, how much or how little to shade and fill in versus committing to the page only what you are sure was really said. 

First, think of a compelling conversation you’ve had. Maybe it was funny or uncanny somehow. Or you learned something from it, or it marked a turning point in a relationship. Or you were given terrible advice or criticized in a way that you couldn’t quite shake. Or maybe it was just one of those incredible moments of connection with someone else, so engrossing that you had trouble ending the conversation and going back to whatever else you needed to do. 

Now try it both ways: direct and indirect. Write the conversation, first, with direct quotes, verbatim as much as you can remember but the rest filled in to approximate the conversation as it happened. Be true to the Truth–the real emotion, the true spirit of the dialogue even if it’s not true to the letter. 

Then try paraphrasing, now that the energy of the conversation is alive. Where you do remember some verbatim phrasing, include it. Since those lines stuck with you in memory, they are probably the most compelling anyway. 

See how each version feels. Is the approximated, creatively verbatim direct dialogue too close to fictionalized? Or does it sit okay with you because, first of all, nobody’s on trial here, the stakes just aren’t that high if you fill in some gaps, and second, the broad strokes of being truthful are what really matter.

And is the faithful-to-fact version dynamic? Does it have enough energy and vitality without the voice, the phrasing? Are you able to punctuate the paraphrased lines with bits of direct quotes that you remember precisely?