Dialogue in Nonfiction: Something Someone Really Said

Thursday, July 11, 2013
In nonfiction, every fact, including
dialogue must be  100% factual. Goodall's
book is an excellent example.
Several months ago I taught a class on writing creative nonfiction. I gave each group of students a set of facts, pulled from a published nonfiction scene, and challenged them to recreate this same scene.

The hardest part? Judging by the scenes that they wrote, and some of them were amazing, the most difficult part was using just the facts that they had been given without making any additions. When they read their work out loud, there were all kinds of new bits of information introduced into the scenes. The most frequent addition was dialogue.

Creative nonfiction may be creative in how you present the information (scenes and story rule!), but it is 100% factual in terms of actual content. This means that if you see it on the page, the author found it in doing her research.

What does this mean in terms of dialogue? It means that if you see it in quotation marks, the author found this quote recorded in some way. It could be something that the person said in an interview that the author conducted herself or one that someone else conducted. Maybe it was in a question and answer article or a profile. It could be a quote from a letter or diary.
If the writer can’t find the dialogue through her research, than she can’t include it.

Fabricated dialogue of any kind, even if the author found the information in some form other than a quote, moves the writing into fiction. It may be fiction based on true events, but it is still fiction.

If you are writing nonfiction with dialogue, tell your editor where you found it. Include this information in your author’s note. This will assure your readers, and your editor, that you are giving everyone the plain, unvarnished truth.

It is a fine line. But it is a line that can’t be crossed if you are going to call your work nonfiction, creative nonfiction or narrative nonfiction.


Sue Bradford Edwards blogs about writing and publishing at One Writer's Journey.


Anonymous said...

I agree that a writer needs to be accurate when writing straight nonfiction, but when I think of creative nonfiction I think of personal essays and memoir, etc. We have to have some creative license when it comes to these forms of writing, because they're subjective; the only place some of these quotes are recorded is in our memories. Although it would be great to have a photographic memory, I know mine's not quite that accurate ;)

Margo Dill said...

I just had this debate with myself and on my blog and maybe even here after I read a how-to creative nonfiction book and learned how much famous authors "create" and it's still considered nonfiction. I agree with you that if it's nonfiction, it should have really happened. But I also know in memoir, dialogue is sometimes close but maybe not exact. What do you think about memoir, Sue?

Anonymous said...


You posted just as I was composing my response to Elizabeth.

In memoir, every effort needs to be made to stick to the facts. True, we all remember things a little differently but that is very different than deliberately misleading the reader.

If you cannot verify the dialogue, in memoir, write it as you remember it.

But do not fiddle with the time line to create drama. That is also something sometimes done in memoir and it drives me batty.

Okay, I am quietly getting off my soapbox now.


Sioux Roslawski said...

SueBE--I'm glad there was a "dialogue" about including conversations in memoirs. Yes, it's important to keep true to what really happened. But unfortunately, no one has a tape recorder in their head...at least I don't.

I kept returning to the Jane Goodall book. It looks like a fascinating read.

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