3 Things You Need To Know About Using Dialogue In Non-fiction

By Mary Jaksch, Chief Editor of Write to Done

I recently had a coffee with a fellow blogger, called John M.

“I’m writing a novel – started yesterday,” he said. “Yep—” he nodded, reaching for the sugar with a frown. “Better than writing those bloody blog posts I have to churn out each week.”

“Well, what’s so great about writing a novel?” I asked.

John poured more sugar into his latte. “I love the dialogues!”

“If you’re so fired up about dialogues, can’t you use them in your non-fiction stuff?”

“Nope,” John shook his head. “Can’t do… they don’t work in non-fiction.”

Don’t they?

Many non-fiction writers think like John and miss out on a great tool to liven up their work. Here are three things you need to know in order to make dialogue work in non-fiction:

1. Use dialogue as a hook

Dialogue works as a hook because it makes a story out of mere information. Open a daily paper at random and observe how journalists use this technique. Here, for example, is the beginning of an article on arson statistics in the Guardian:

“I’ve lost everything,” sobbed Marian Boulder outside her house that burned to the ground yesterday morning. “I only got out at the last moment and had to leave behind all my treasures. And the photos of my daughter who died last year.”

Marion Boulder’s house was just one of 340 suspected arson cases this year. Yesterday Police Chief Inspector Holmes commented on the rise of arson…

The story of Marian Boulder is the vivid hook that leads into the kind of piece that keeps statisticians on a high but makes the rest of us reach for a pillow. However, because we are touched by Marion’s story, we are inclined to continue reading—at least for another paragraph, or so.

You might be wondering whether this is really an example of dialogue – after all there’s only one person talking. True. But maybe we can agree that the interviewer’s presence and questions are implied in the story.

2. Use direct quotes for emotional impact

Read the following two paragraphs and see which one has the most impact on you. They are from my upcoming Ebook, called ‘From Tragedy to Triumph: Winning Through a Life Crisis’:

1. The first response to disaster is usually denial–which is the opposite of acceptance. It took a long time for Linda D. to emerge from denial.

2. “Imagine my shock,” Linda said, “when I woke after the operation and the surgeon told me that they had sewn me up again because there was nothing, absolutely nothing they could do for me. They found cancer all through my liver. My first thought was: ‘No! Ben’s only four. I can’t leave him on his own. I just can’t be dying”

I’m sure that you too are emotionally touched by Linda’s story. Instead of just registering that denial is a natural response to shock, we are suddenly faced with Linda’s suffering. At that moment the facts wear a human face.

3. Set the stage for quotes

When you use quotes, you are a film director and must take control of the scene! Don’t let the dialogue just hang there in space. Make sure that your characters do something while they are talking. In her book ‘Write Away’, Elisabeth George calls the actions that accompany dialogue THADs, or a ‘Talking Heads Avoidance Devices’.

To illustrate, let’s take a peak at how I close the story of Linda D.

It was late spring when Linda came to see me one last time. She was frail and her skin was like parchment.

I settled her into a chair on the verandah. The wisteria blooms were a sea of purple. We were silent for a while. Then I asked:

“How do you feel about dying?”

“I feel at peace now,” she said. Then she raised her face to the sun and shut her eyes. “Everything is so precious. Now I know how precious each moment is!”

You can see that the scene is important to bring out the unspoken in the dialogue. The simple act of settling her into a chair in the late sun implies that Linda is now close to death.

You might ask, “Is this really a true story?”

Stick to the truth—but don’t pander to reality.

If you are a journalist, your integrity depends on your objective and truthful reporting. However, as a writer you have license to use creative techniques in order to transmit both information and emotions.

Linda really existed and I knew her well. The quote about how she woke up after the operation is from a taped interview that I did with her before she died. I tidied it up a little but it’s essentially original. I don’t think the wisteria was flowering at the time of her last visit. I use the veranda, the wisteria, and the evening sun as props to set the scene. Notice also that I describe Linda’s face and body with a couple of words. It’s important to flesh out your characters so that readers can imagine them.

There is a lot to learn when writing dialogue. A great way is to read what fiction writers have to say about it. An even better way is to try it out and have fun!

Here are some useful resources:

I’d be interested to hear what you have to say about using dialogue. Maybe you’re dead against it. Or maybe you’ve tried it and it was a hit – or it flopped. Whatever your experience is with writing dialogue, please share your thoughts and musings in the comments.

Mary Jaksch is Editor-in-Chief at Write to Done. Grab her FREE report How to Write Like an A-List Blogger. Mary has helped thousands of students successfully create outstanding and profitable blogs at A-List Blogging and is the blogger behind Goodlife ZEN.

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16 thoughts on “3 Things You Need To Know About Using Dialogue In Non-fiction”

  • “What if I spent some time incorporating dialogue into non-fiction text?” Corey wondered as he sat in the coffee shop enjoying the beginning of what should be a productive day.

    Great ideas, I’ll have to work on using this tool more.

  • gianpaolo says:

    Very very intersting and useful. I’m going to re-write part of my short stories after reading this and following the links.
    Thanks, really
    Gianpaolo Castellano

  • Dialogue worked very well for me in the opening lines to my first book, Work in Progress:

    A voice came over the intercom. “Try not to move,” it said, “Or the scan won’t come out clearly.” All I could do was lie there in silence. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, hoping it would make me stop trembling. But it didn’t. I was scared and I was alone. The only comfort I had was a button I could push if I wanted it all to stop. It just wasn’t enough.

  • @ Corey
    “Wow” Mary thought, chuckling, “he’s using dialogue in his comment!”

    @Gianpaolo
    Oh, good. I’m glad this post was useful for you.
    One of the difficult and fun things about dialogue is to give each protagonist a ‘voice’. That is, to give them a certain way of speaking that is characteristic. I tried to do that in my opening dialogue. So I made John M.’s voice different from mine.

    @Eugene
    That’s a great first para! And it’s really the dialogue which gives it life and tension.

  • Great post! I first met dialog in non-fiction in Lockhart’s Lament (an essay about mathematics education). The guy uses two characters – Simplicio and Salviati. One is for the article, the other is against. And the one for always has the last word. Sort of like teleshopping, if you know what I mean. Since then I use these two guys almost every time I try to make a point :)

    Simplicio: I don’t think this kind of dialog has much to add. After all, won’t putting the points against your article in there dilute the effect?

    Salviati: On the contrary. The effect will become even stronger, because all the potential objections will be addressed. It also lets the readers identify with the character who objects the article. That’s why having the character become convinced at the end is so powerful.

    Simplicio: But won’t the readers feel manipulated? After all, it seems like pretty obvious manipulation. You even said it yourself, it’s like teleshopping.

    Salviati: There’s a simple reason it’s used in teleshopping. It WORKS. I talked to several friends, and they clearly liked this form of dialog. You can learn a lot by watching professionals… and teleshopping people are professionals at convincing others.

    Simplicio: Mmm, okay, I might give these kinds of dialog a try.

    Salviati: Okay, I’m glad to hear that. And now back to Vlad, I think we already took up a lot of time here with our chatting :)

    (btw. it helps you cultivate your schizophrenia, great for passing long boring evenings :p)

    But I haven’t had much experience with using the kind of dialog described in this article. I’ll definitely give it a try and see what happens.

    Again, thanks for this article.

  • Annie says:

    I’ve been reading Roy Clark’s book “Writing Tools,” and one of his tips is to use dialogue as a form of action. Works nicely in nonfiction or fiction, I think. I never skip reading dialogue… though I often skim the heavy paragraphs of “pure information.”

    Thanks for the article.

  • Anna says:

    It was a sunny afternoon and warm beams lighted a crowded office room. She was sitting with her legs crossed on the chair and thinking “I must thank the writer as the article gave me much inspiration”.

    Thank you, Mary ;)

  • I have been running a series on my blog called “Story – The Nature of Reality.” I have started to write my non-fiction work in a dialogue between two unnamed people. One of them is my voice and says what I want to say. The other voice argues or supports the argument I’m tackling. I have found it works very well and makes it an interesting read.

    So I do believe that dialogue can be used in non-fiction. It doesn’t always need to be a singular voice. And maybe it shouldn’t just be a monologue.

  • I’m with you, Mary. I find using dialogue in non-fiction writing to be a great tool: it’s warm and engaging, it creates a familiar use of information, and it gives the reader a break from *my* voice.

    Also, at every book launch I’ve been to, listening to a reading with dialogue has the crowd that much more engaged. At my own launch, it brought much humor to what felt a bit formal and frightening to me. If it works out loud, I figure it’s working on paper too.

  • Paula says:

    I just love this site. It is so smart and so well done.

  • Alex Weber says:

    This is a great post! I use a lot of dialogs in my posts on my blog (here’s an example) and I’m confident that your tips will help out a lot in the future!
    Thanks!
    -Alex

    P.S. I’m launching another blog very soon about dealing with the ‘quarterlife crisis’ by keeping active, working, etc. Seems like your eBook would be a good fit … I’d like to discuss how we could help each other out more, please use my email! Thanks again!

  • Joey says:

    Can anyone tell me where the picture at the top of this post is from? Is it from a movie? I love the tension between the man and the woman.

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