How to Include Dialogue in Your Narrative Essays
Dynamic, dramatic dialogue isn't just for novels and short stories. Narrative essays also use dialogue to add depth, tension and character development to nonfiction writing. Creative, properly formatted dialogue can bring your personal experiences to life for readers, effectively portraying the relationships, characters and morals at the heart of your story.
Reach for Realism
You may not remember exactly how conversations in your experience unfolded, but you still can recreate them in an essay. Strive for authenticity by reproducing the general flavor of the conversation, including the participants' emotions, language and interactions. Jo Ann Beard's essay "Bulldozing the Baby," for example, recounts an experience she had as a toddler, including dialogue from her aunt and mother. While Beard likely doesn't remember their exact words, she still can reconstruct the conversation based on her family's relationships and how they communicate. Your readers will trust you to create realistic dialogue that captures the essence of what happened.
Keep the Story Moving
Good dialogue in both fiction and nonfiction advances a story's action. Avoid presenting small talk in dialogue, such as having characters say hello and ask each other how their day is going. Instead, reserve dialogue for only the most crucial moments to keep the plot in motion. In "Finders Keepers," Mark Bowden recounts the story of Joey Coyle, a young man in Philadelphia who kept $1 million that fell off an armored car. Bowden uses dialogue to dramatize the discussion between Coyle and his friends over whether they should keep the money or return it, introducing the primary conflict of the story.
Create Character Voices
Diction, or word choice, adds realism to your dialogue's portrayal of a character's speech. As you craft your dialogue, consider how to recreate the voices of the people involved in your story. You might consider words and expressions they often use, the rhythm and speed of their speech and whether they are shy or outgoing. In "One Village," Naomi Shihab Nye describes visiting her grandmother in the Palestinian village where she grew up. She uses Arabic words mixed with English and short sentences to recreate her grandmother's speech in dialogue and portray the local culture for readers.
Use Proper Punctuation
Poor dialogue formatting can confuse easily readers easily and make it difficult to follow your personal narrative. Start a new paragraph every time a new character begins speaking, putting question marks and periods inside the quotation marks. To let readers know which character is speaking, use the dialogue tag "said" by placing a comma inside the quotation marks, then giving the attribution for who is speaking. You also can use punctuation to add realism to your dialogue. For example, try ending a line of dialogue with a hyphen to show one person interrupting another, or with ellipses to show his speech trailing off.
- University of Richmond Writing Center: Writing in the Disciplines: Creative Writing
- National Novel Writing Month: How to Write Really Good Dialogue
- Creative Nonfiction: Research and Crafting Stories of Real Life; Philip Gerard
- Grossmont College: Some Practical Advice About Using Punctuation and Markers in Creative Writing
Kori Morgan holds a Bachelor of Arts in professional writing and a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing and has been crafting online and print educational materials since 2006. She taught creative writing and composition at West Virginia University and the University of Akron and her fiction, poetry and essays have appeared in numerous literary journals.