Monday, 18 November 2013

Creative Non-Fiction - Part 3

Creative non-fiction writers can add sparkle to their text if they use dialogue. Remember, dialogue requires at least two people to speak: there needs to be a conversation. Traditionally, if non-fiction writers wanted to add authority to a piece of text they would quote some words from a relevant expert. Whilst this involves putting text into speech marks, it’s not the same as dialogue. Here’s an example:

It’s a fact. Christmas is getting earlier each year. “We’ve studied the period when retailers begin showing their Christmas adverts,” says Fred Bloggs of, “and we’ve discovered that most retailers are launching their advertising campaigns two weeks earlier than they were five years ago.”

Okay, I made that up. (Am I the only one fed up with watching Christmas adverts already?) However, in this example, the quote tells the reader that the writer’s statement (Christmas is getting earlier each year) is not a personal opinion, but a belief held by others. But when quotes are used like this the writer is reporting what was said. I consider this pushes readers away from the source of the quote. Effectively, the writer is saying, “Here’s what this bloke told me the other day.” The reader is getting the information second-hand, and is being told what was said.

Dialogue changes things, and works better for some areas of non-fiction, such as travel writing and (auto)biography. When a reader comes across dialogue, it offers some immediacy. It’s as though the reader is standing just behind the writer’s shoulder and listening in to their conversation. With dialogue, the reader feels as though the action is happening now. They’re experiencing the conversation just as the writer did.

You look like a man on an adventure,” says the waiter, with a wryness to his smile.
“I might be.” I hedge my bets.
“You should go to the market at first light, tomorrow. You’ll see locals, then. Leave it until an hour after sunrise and you’ll be one tourist amongst thousands of others.”
“Thank you. I’ll do that.”
“Watch out for Pedro on the rug stall. He offers good deals but short changes his customers.” The waiter winks and walks away.

That, in itself, is a little scene (see last week’s post about scenes), but I hope you found that more engaging than the quote example earlier. It still conveys a lot of information to the reader, but in a more immediate way. The writer could have written: Go to the market at first light to watch the locals go about their daily business before the tourists arrive. And beware of Pedro on the rug stall, who’s known to short change his customers. It gives the same information, but those two sentences lack life. Dialogue adds that life.

Essentially, dialogue allows a writer to show the reader information, whereas quotes tell the reader stuff. In fact, if you read last week’s post again, you’ll see that the opening scene begins with dialogue, because it’s a great way of grabbing the reader’s attention. It’s the immediacy of dialogue that helps achieve this.

So next time you want to convey some interesting information to the reader, consider the art of conversation. It can be quite revealing.

Good luck.


  1. I think this is a very valuable series, Simon. I wrote a short travel piece which contained dialogue just as you suggest here. The editor of the small magazine I sent it to said they were inundated with pieces waiting to be published already but would accept it and publish it when they had space as they liked the style.

    1. Hi Wendy,

      That's great news! It just shows you how adopting a slightly different style can improve your chances.