Write Your Memoir in 4 Months Lessons Module 3 of 4

Module 3: Writing Craft: Details and Character

Lesson 12: The World Is in the Details

In this lesson:

  • The importance of detail
  • Making the world new
  • Common description pitfalls
  • Description best practices

Importance of Detail

In The Elements of Style, William Strunk, Jr. writes:


If those who have studied the art of writing are in accord on any one point, it is on this: the surest way to arouse and hold the attention of the reader is by being specific, definite, and concrete.  The greatest writers … are effective largely because they deal in particulars and report the details that matter.


Nouns = Life’s Visual Stepping Stones

How important are details? Consider lying about why you were late for the party/meeting/whatever.

If you’re vague or don’t say much, you’re not giving your fellow conversant anything to stand on. If you however tell a a colorful story rich with nouns, those fantastic physical details as part of the world that helped make you late, well, something that specific has to be real!

For example:

Honey, you’re so late! I really needed you home. What happened?

“Oh, I got held up.”


“Oh, the line at the grocery store was so long, it snaked all the way into the baby food aisle and I was stuck behind some young couple who managed to keep up a steady conversation with each other while they were texting other people, plus they had two carts, one of which filled with bags of sour cream and pickle flavor rice cakes, so either she was pregnant or they owned a convenience store.”

(Depending on whom you’re trying to fleece, this may work or it may get you the fish eye … but it sure is detailed!)

The more places you give your reader to stand, the more grounded they feel.

Another way of consider it is the more nouns you provide, the more concrete the world you create in their imagination. And the more specific the noun, the more specific the imagined visual.

As Natalie Goldberg says in her chapter “The Rules for Writing Practice,” from her wonderful book Wild Mind:

3. Be specific. Not car, but Cadillac. Not fruit, but apple. Not bird, but wren. Not a codependent, neurotic man, but Harry, who runs to open the refrigerator for his wife, thinking she wants an apple, when she is headed for the gas stove to light her cigarette. Be careful of those pop psychology labels. Get below the label and be specific to the person. But don’t chastise yourself as you are writing, “I’m an idiot; Natalie said to be specific and like a fool I wrote ‘tree.’ ” Just gently note that you wrote “tree,” drop to a deeper level, and next to “tree” write “sycamore.”


blue eggs in nest
A Writer’s Job Is to Make the World New 

The Richness of Language

Because English is an amalgam of languages, it boasts an enormous vocabulary. What a rich wealth of words we have at our disposal! Having such a database to draw from allows us to truly explore and bust a move with our prose.

Take every opportunity you can to enjoy the wealth of language to open our eyes to something new.

Let’s have a look at the opening to The Liars Club, best selling memoir from Mary Karr:


“My sharpest memory is of a single instant surrounded by dark.  I was seven, and our family doctor knelt before me where I sat on a mattress on the bare floor.  He wore a yellow golf shirt unbuttoned so that sprouts of hair showed in a V shape on his chest.  I had never seen him in anything but a white starched shirt and gray tie.  The change unnerved me.  He was pulling at the hem of my favorite nightgown—a pattern of Texas bluebonnets bunched into nosegays tied with ribbons against a field of nappy white cotton.  I had tucked my knees under it to make a tent.  He could easily have yanked the thing over my head with one motion, but something made him gentle.  “Show me the marks,” he said.  “Come on, now.  I won’t hurt you.”


You have seen this opening referenced before or read the book and remember it: it’s an arresting picture and one that invites us to lean in to learn more. We don’t know what’s happening: it seems the doctor is benevolent, but we’re not quite sure yet, are we?

Karr puts herself into the heart/center of the scene and uses herself as a child persona, which is vulnerable. She also uses vivid verbs: tucked, pulled and her senses. Later on, she’ll describe him as having a “begging voice” and that his “moustache looks like a caterpillar.”

The writing is lean, spare, and the details she has chosen are specific. This is why the opening of the book — and the book itself — are successful.

sun streaming through tall trees and early morning mist

Common Description Pitfalls

A memoirist’s job is to invite the reader into your past and present worlds. The single best way to do that is through details — and the more specific the better. (See Goldberg passage above)

If you are feeling hesitant because you are thinking, “But I want my book to be universal, so anyone can see themselves in this situation” then while you’d imagine the way to do that is by leaving things open-ended so the reader can see themselves in the scenes, the paradox is the less detail you provide, the weaker your world reads, and the less the reader can engage and therefore feel viscerally involved in the story.

Some examples of being inexact or unspecific can backfire:

  • “Typical” or “Ordinary”


“It was a typical day in Tulsa.”


“It was another ordinary Sunday morning in the Jackson household.”

While it’s tempting to backpedal and think, “Oh, shucks; it was just a boring summer Thursday. Who am I to think my Thursday was so interesting.” you are not writing this memoir because you want to retreat your life into the background. No, you’re writing this memoir because you are making meaning from your life in order to show others the meaning of theirs. Now is the time to be exact, specific, and to show them what made that Thursday its very own kind of ordinary.”

Further, that kind of watery-ness is frustrating to the reader, again because they don’t know what they’re looking at!

Try it: if you close your eyes and try to imagine a typical day in Tulsa, for example, what do you see? You’ll see something, certainly, but it won’t be the world the writer should have painted for you. It’ll be a vague image of you trying to piece together any movie or story or friend’s description of Tulsa (or if you don’t have any frame of reference for Tulsa, you’ll just have a big blank in your mind).

And an “ordinary” Sunday morning? I know my Sunday mornings are not like other people’s Sunday mornings, so if I even begin to try to see this, I see nothing, so confused am I by the millions of possibilities. My poor tired brain has nowhere to land.

Every moment of your story is an opportunity to invite the reader in. Paint it for them. Make them feel like they could pull up a chair in the middle of the scene and see what you saw, smelled, felt and experienced at that time in your life.

Weak Specification

“Patty was a tall and very pretty 36-year-old woman.”


This kind of description doesn’t let us get to know Patty. It just makes me resent the writer. Why?

  1. You can’t see any of it. It’s simply not visual. Adjectives like “pretty,” “ugly,” “boring,” etc. don’t give us anything to hold on to.
  2. This kind of exposition (telling) is judging Patty. Pretty is 100% subjective. If the writer lets me see Patty for myself, and she is shown as a pretty person by the details the writer has chosen, then I will also find her pretty.

Idiomatic Expressions or Used Language


We learn early on that some familiar word combinations are shorthand for descriptions or situations. “Tall, dark, and handsome”, “rosy-cheeked children” or the first pages of The Da Vinci Code (collapsed in a heap, gasping for breath, taking stock, surge of adrenaline) are such familiar permutations of words, we don’t read them; we skim to take in the shorthanded meaning.



That said, it’s important to be kind to ourselves early in our drafting- one of the reasons we are drawn to this language is it’s on the tip of the tongue (sorry, had to :), but again, that’s why we have revision: to ensure we’re expressing ourselves artfully, with engaging language that’s concise, lean, and vivid.

If we keep this overused language through to the last draft and into submission for publication or self-publication itself, and our readers are skimming it, or worse, being lulled into complacence for lack of being surprised and invigorated by our language, it bodes less well for the reader making it past Chapter 1 or for deriving the kind of deep sustenance we crave from reading memoir in he first place.

*Tip: If you inadvertently use an idiom or a weaker description while writing your draft and realize you’ve done so, you may gently write something a bit more dynamic beside before carrying on. In revision, you will be the wiser.

wood door for one lit place at onelitplace.com at onelitplace.com

Description Best Practices

Use details that are specific, quirky, and concrete.

  • Describe the color of a white wall- Detergent?  Eggshell?  Try chalk, paper, tooth-enamel white. Try something you’ve never heard before that blows your mind.Pro tip: Bear in mind your mood or the energy of the scene when describing. It will affect how you describe and what you describe.

Every detail must be there for a reason

  • Remember to keep things just light enough (remember the 2-3 rule? 2-3 details about a setting or character is usually a fine start; more can be dropped in with each subsequent contact).Too many details and the reader will skim past to get to the “good part” (which is civilian-speak for “action/dialogue”)
  • Each detail should push forward the character of that thing, setting, or person by way of illumination or discovery
  • Do a bit of legwork; consider the idiosyncratic, the specific and unique to describe a character, a setting, or establish a mood, rather than throwing on a pile of adjectives.
    • Pay attention to recalling the specific culture, topography, weather patterns, customs, and formalities:
      • Does the town use salt or sand in the winter?
      • What birds roost there?
      • What do people eat?
      • What leaves fall in autumn?
      • How do people greet each other?
  • Look at contrasts; what’s unique about these things that you can celebrate?


Keep Your Description Simple & Clean

  • If details are provided in a lump (or as some call it, an “info dump,” the story may lose its pace and become clogged. A character doesn’t need to be described in full at our first meeting but can be brought forward in a silhouette or shadow, just enough to hang our ideas on.

In fact, keeping things in outline is a wonderful line to straddle; the reader can then meet with the narrative world with their own human ideas about the details you’ve provided and be lead into the world with some mystery and anticipation.

  • Consider how concise you can be by reducing your modifiers (adjectives and adverbs); do you need to say “very,” “actually,” or “literally”? Must you say “real authentic genuine leather,” “blue in color,” or “terrible mistake”? Trust yourself, trust your reader, and trust that if it’s not clear, it’ll become so in revision.

Orange leaves on a tree branch

Above all, our job is to share the magic of the world of our story with others. To render the world we know so well unique, specific, and singular in ways no one else has. Using our tools of re-seeing through language that is fresh and specific opens up the reader to new possibilities and excites them to share in your journey and in this act of literature.

Reading & Resources

“Loss of Face,” Charles Baxter *a long and excellent read from The Believer Magazine
Keeping it Concise by Eliminating Words
Unnecessary Action in Fiction
“The Rules for Writing Practice,” Natalie Goldberg

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Lesson 13: Show v. Tell

In this lesson:

  • When to Show and When to Tell
  • Benefits & Drawbacks of Showing
  • Benefits & Drawbacks of Telling


People talk about show vs. tell a lot and largely say show is better. But it’s not a contest; all stories require a balance of both!

That said, knowing when to use which is something that comes out during revision so you’re able to balance between letting your reader feel intrinsically part of the story (as if present) through showing a moment and telling the reader a lot of information so they can intellectually process either the present moment or the broader story past, present, and future.


To show means that you paint the moment for the reader with details. This plants the reader in the place, time, and emotional tenor of the moment and enables them to feel like they’re taking part in the story.  

Because the reader gets to see the action firsthand, they will arrive at their own emotion and deductions. They will also feel more personally invested in the emotional tenor and atmosphere of the moment and feel more strongly whatever you wish for them to feel at a moment. 


To tell means the story is being narrated, or told, by you. Either you’re telling the reader about something that happened in summary, reporting on it as if in a play-by-play, or speaking to some broader insight, backstory, or emotion from your current perspective about an event or situation from your past.

The locus or thread that strings together the moments of a memoir is your persona telling us your story. It is a vital part of the book, perfect for us to get a sense of you, invest in your problem and journey, and develop an intimate relationship with you such that we care about what you went through and the outcomes.

On a micro basis, telling is also wonderful for quickly relaying large swaths of information to give the reader an intellectual handle on the situation of the narrative.

Bearing in mind this is not an autobiography but a section of your life, you may nonetheless wish to speak to experience that falls outside of that slice that informs the story. Telling is perfect for just that.

Show v. Tell
It’s the difference between thrusting the reader into the action by engaging the senses

or telling them about the event later on over coffee

men grappling for megaphone

Consider the difference:

  • How would you describe the above scene to a friend after you witnessed it earlier that morning?
  • How would you narrate what was happening to someone on your cell phone while it was happening?The verb tenses would likely change, but what else would be different?

Neither is Better or Worse: They’re Both Useful Narrative Strategies

Both story strategies are good and useful. The key is balancing them to maintain an interesting push/pull of flow, pacing, and energy of a narrative. Too much telling, and the distance and remove may eventually prevent the reader from feeling a tactile sense of your experiences (which is very important so they feel physically and emotionally invested) and keep the reader’s emotional investment at bay; too much showing, and you can’t progress through time or give backstory about you, another character, or a situation.

The Container for Showing and Telling: Scene & Summary


A memoir is in essence a necklace: the scenes, or important dramatic moments that defined the growth of this time of your life, are strung together by a persona’s making sense of them in summary: the bridging moments when you (your persona) strive to find meaning or clarity in amongst those experiences.


Readers like to see scenes because that’s how life occurs: in a series of scenes.

  • A scene is who, where, when, and what people said:
    • A scene occurs in a specific place (where);
    • usually the narrator and one or more others are there (who);
    • at a particular time (when);
    • something happens (what);
    • people converse (dialogue or captured conversation);
    • and sometimes someone thinks about something (interior monologue).

Although usually done sparingly, you might introduce your thoughts on the situation or the people.  You are the narrator.

The strength of scenic writing lies in its ability to evoke sensual images. A scene makes the past present…the reader sees the characters in action, see their gestures, hears their voices in conversation…. The main point behind writing scene by scene is that since the brain is “involved’ in the scenes, it more readily accepts the narrative information. As in fiction, in creative nonfiction you can use scenes to do certain narrative work….”

InWriting Creative Nonfiction, Professor Ted Cheney states: you can even plan an article or book around a series of scenes, selecting only those events that seem to have the greatest dramatic potential and then organize them in what seems the best sequence (which is not always chronological).

A natural rise and fall pattern of scene and summary will create a good dynamic for the book.

Ask yourself: how can I best transmit the information:

  • narrative summary (quick and dirty)
  • scene (tangible and rewarding for the reader, but slower to develop)

Scene (showing): a chunk of lived narrative experience

The way a chapter is an artificial way of providing natural stopping places for readers to take a break, a scene is a chunk of narrative experience such that it pushes the story forward, shows the characters development, and invites the reader into a moment.

A scene is a dynamic organism, an important heartbeat among all the heartbeats that make up the book.

Summary (telling): the thread of the book

Summary: moving things along and providing deeper insights as based on the scenes through summary keeps the pacing up and the book striving toward its ultimate revelations/clarity. Summary is a wonderful tool that enables you to deepen the broader context of the story through backstory or monologue.

Cheney explains how the two storytelling modes are matched (summary and scene).

“The dramatic method (scene) is the cinematographer’s close-up shot; the summary method, in contrast, is the long shot … for the best effect, the two methods merge. A single paragraph may give us the techniques of both scene and summary.”

Benefits of Showing 

When you show a situation, the reader watches it all unfold as if present themselves. Scene is the best delivery method for showing, as a scene is a chunk of lived narrative experience illustrated through dialogue, action, and some description.

Show the reader smoke, and they will infer fire.

from the movie Tommy Boy: 

This clip is maybe four seconds, but in that time, we see that:

a) the guy has just gotten off this bus
b) this character is a jerk
c) he’s about to embark on something

It’s fun to see all of this for ourselves. Sure, you could have had a single line of telling: “The man who just got off the Greyhound bus a jerk.” But it’s vague and theoretical. And what’s the fun in that?

Showing is immediate and visceral; it’s a wonderful way to thrust your reader directly into a moment and let them experience it.

Bruce Chatwin, opens his book In Patagonia with conversation:

“Feel it,” she said. “Feel the wind coming through.”

I put my hand to the wall. The draught blew through the chinks where the mortar had fallen out. The log cabin was the North American kind. In Patagonia they made cabins differently and did not chink them with mortar. The owner of the cabin was a Chilean Indian woman called Sepulveda.

“In winter it’s terrible,” she said. “I covered the wall with materia plastica but it blew away. The house is rotten, Señor, old and rotten. I would sell it tomorrow. I would have a concrete house, which the wind cannot enter. Señor Sepulveda was grogged out of his mind, half sitting, half lying by the kitchen stove.

“Would you buy the house?” she asked.

“No” I said, “but don’t sell if for nothing. There are North American gentleman who would pay good money to take it away piece by piece.”

“The method is to write in a minimal way, largely providing the facts of a situation and accurate reporting on what people do…the writer does not tell us the meaning, nor what emotions to feel, nor what emotions the characters are feeling. All of this is left to the reader’s brain, to add its details from personal experience to what’s happening in the story, thereby bringing to the story the emotions the reader felt in the original experience. Like a haiku, this kind of writing requires an intelligent, experienced reader, for it to achieve in the reader’s brain an emotion as close as possible to what the writer experienced originally.”

~ Ted Cheney

When Showing Won’t Work Is Exactly When Telling Will!

Benefits to Telling

Showing takes longer to impart information than telling. Sometimes, much longer. And at yet other times, showing is not feasible.

Time and her years during the depression had worn her spirit into something shiny and smooth, like a sea pebble, no longer allowing her to be surprised or delighted at the world, nor giving her pause when things went wrong.

This is a whole life, distilled into a sentence. It’d be impossible to show it.

Backstories and Character Description 

Another way telling is valuable is for providing character histories or backstories. This can happen mid-scene or between scenes and allow you in just a few paragraphs of exposition to cover a lot of territory.

Same with character description; we will see your character do certain things that indicate how they feel in the moment or perhaps how they feel more globally, but telling us some things about their beliefs or interests is a quick way of imparting important information about them.

Drawbacks of Telling

Telling removes our ability to engage viscerally in a moment. If you’re telling the reader about something that happened or a character’s emotional state we’re losing out on being able to connect with empathy. Imagine hearing “Lisa was angry.” There’s not a lot you can do with that. But if you see Lisa being angry, you’ll feel something.

Judging your Characters/ Situations

Telling can also invite your judgment, which may not give a reader an accurate picture of the character on the character’s terms. What is “beautiful” or “ungainly” to one is not to another.

“Debbie was a very stubborn and completely independent person and was always doing things her way despite her parents’ efforts to get her to conform.  Her father was an executive in a dress manufacturing company and was able to afford his family all the luxuries and comforts of life.  But Debbie was completely indifferent to her family’s affluence.”

Janet Burroway, Writing Fiction

“Stubborn” or “independent” could be good or bad depending on your value system.

The job was boring as dry toast.

That is such a missed opportunity to show what made it boring!

Show v. Tell: Example 1

He looked at me in a way that wasn’t exactly threatening but still made me uncomfortable.

This line tells about something that happened and what effect it had on your character. But it’s vague.


Wouldn’t it have been more fun to see him mid-behaviour looking a certain way that would make your character uncomfortable?

  • Did he waggle his eyebrows in a vaguely sensual manner?
  • Did he stare directly at her while taking a gigantic bite out of a chicken wing, so that bits of cartilage crunched in his mouth as he chewed?
  • Did he keep glancing up at a point just above her head, as if something was about to drop on her, and then laugh when she looked up to see for herself?


Show v. Tell: Example 2

Abe was angry.

(What do you say to that? Bummer. I’m sorry to hear that. But do you feel something, anything, for Abe? No. It’s too removed.)


Abe’s throat tightened and his face thudded with violent heat. He grabbed the paperweight from his writing desk and flung it at the wall.

It’s easier to feel something for Abe when we are present to see him respond to his emotion.

Show v. Tell Example 3

Susan was sad because the boy she’d been dating stopped calling.


Susan’s roommate, Mira, giggled and waved at the gaggle of college boys at the bar who’d sent her over a single Budweiser.  She took a sip, grinned, and gave the boys a thumbs-up before turning back to Susan and sighing contentedly.  “Boys,” she said shaking her head.  “They’re funny, huh?”

“Yeah,” said Susan.  “They’re funny.”  Beneath the table, Susan slowly tore her napkin into ribbons.

Show v. Tell Example 4

Joe was confused.


Joe kept turning the map over and over as if the streets would suddenly disentangle themselves and make perfect sense.

vintage black typewriter


Showing & Telling in Balance Makes for Good Book Hygiene

Anyone who has taken a writing class may have gleaned from all the attention and adulation “Showing” gets in storytelling that “Telling” is the lesser uglier brother. Or even not a good mode of storytelling.

But in fact, telling is a very important way to relay information and an essential tool for the memoirist! It’s just a matter of learning when to recognize when to tell us something or when to show us something.

Each time you tell or show it’s a decision. and sometimes that’s the kind of decision that happens later on when you’re sculpting the draft and paying greater attention to the rise and fall of the narrative style.

General Tips:

  • Conquer a large swath of information with Telling

If you need to establish things quickly, move the reader through time, set up a family dynamic before we “see” the family in action in order to plant/achieve things you can’t do in scene as efficiently, telling is the way to go.

  • Don’t beat your reader over the head by doubling up on info (we’re smarter than we look!)

Many writers use both telling and showing in order to be very sure the reader understands. It is rarely necessary to tell us something and then follow it up by showing.


Joe was confused. He kept turning the map over and over as if the streets would suddenly disentangle themselves and make perfect sense.

Would you have needed someone to tell you Joe was confused? Of course not. You’re seeing him be confused for yourself.

*This doubling up is the kind of thing you would gently pluck out later in revision.

Reading & Resources

Show Don’t Tell Storytelling

Dramatic Openings

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Lesson 14: Techniques for Creating Great Characters

In this lesson:

  • Writing about real people: the legal and ethical issues
  • Bringing your characters to life on the page
  • Making characters feel real
  • Character perception and revelation
  • Narrative methods for writing character

The Ethics of Writing About Real People

Writing about real living people is one of the stickiest parts of memoir. Many a would-be memoirist remains silent for not knowing how to handle this all-important issue.

We talked at the outset about rights, and in the case of yours, that you have every right to tell your story as you see fit. Every human being you have ever encountered will have a different version of your shared story, which is fair and reasonable; after all, they are whole separate human beings who positionally, physically and psychically, will occupy a different place in any shared narrative.

Be that as it may, you may tell your story from your vantage point and for your own reasons.

That said, when we’re dealing with real living people — some of whom may be close to you and with whom you have good relationships — we need to be careful with them and how they’re portrayed on the page to enable you to continue to have a good relationship and to remain out of the courtroom.

Exercising Reasonable Caution (and Knowing When to Shift Genres)

Normally I put the readings at the end of the lectures, but this one is clear, specific, and detailed and I’d like you to check it out straight away. It lists all of the ways in which a person could land in hot water for using a real living person in their work without their permission or use them in their work in ways that could harm them (or bring about perceived harm).

diplomaFrom business lawyer Helen Sedwick, “How to Use Real People in Your Writing”

Let’s discuss a few things to see if you are going to be in safe territory with your memoir or whether you might be better off considering (and selling) your story as “fiction”:

  • If you’re writing it to get back at someone who has wronged you or to expose a wrong or an ill inflicted upon you or someone you love, and the only way to accurately tell the story is to speak to unsavoury aspects of their personhood, you may wish to write your book as fiction.
  • If you do not or cannot write about those factoring into the book with empathy and kindness due to bearing residual feelings that will affect your ability to be neutral or compassionate toward them on the page, you may wish to write your book as fiction.
  • If you are writing about people who have expressed dissent at being depicted on the page or whom you know would take issue with being written about and with whom you wish to maintain relations, you may wish to write your book as fiction.

The benefit to considering your work, and selling it, as fiction is it can be entirely based on true events, but the defining locus becomes telling a story that finds its clarity and insight through the characters who exist under the veil (or perceived veil) of your imagination rather than through you coming from darkness to light as a real person. This shift enables you “the sky’s the limit” leeway in terms of what you’re allowed to do on the page.

No longer beholden to sticking to the truth, you’re able to fill in gaps, fabricate to dramatic effect, and go off-roading to the benefit of the work. Plus, no one gets hurt. You can change all of the individuals’ identifying characteristics, and because the protagonist isn’t you anymore, bearing your name, face, and history, but a fictional character (again, even if 99.9% based on you), those in your life won’t have the same leg to stand on when it comes to feeling a direct affront at seeing what they imagine is their behaviours, personalities, or events they created on the page, and libel is even harder to prove.

Even if you write your book as “based on a true story,” which invites memoir readers to the fiction table more than it being a straight-up novel, for your safety— and the comfort and privacy of those in your memoir— if you can’t safely write memoir due to the people who would factor into it, fiction is a viable second option that will still allow you to tell your story.

green bow on white gift

Above all should be your purpose for telling the story and you reconciling yourself to what feels right and authentic for your book.

If you wish to tell your story as a truthful account of your experiences, and fiction feels like an inaccurate way for you to do this, then you absolutely can and should write your memoir or life story.

As this writer’s grandmother used to say, “Don’t hide your light under a bushel.” If you have something to say, then you should darn well say it. We’ll talk about how to say it so you stay safe and happy in your relationships.

How to Write Real People

Tell the truth/Show the truth

Some people’s behaviour speaks for itself. By reducing or removing your commentary about their character and instead letting them show themselves in scenes with dialogue and action, their actions will speak for themselves.

Use speculation

If what the character did is on public record, or they acted or took part in events with others present, that’s great, and you can get those bystanders or do research to confirm the events about which you’re writing. However, when there are holes in your knowledge, you can couch what you don’t know with supposition- the memoir writer’s best cushion.

“I will never know for sure, but I can only guess that … “

“Perhaps … “

In this helpful blog, the author’s #6 talks about how to use “speculation” in order to move the story forward when you don’t have concrete information.

Operate with empathy

Aim to paint those in your book as fairly, honestly, and truly as possible; from the nastiest nasty to the kindest of kind, all human beings have a right to fair public treatment at the hands of others, plus the more empathy you are able to muster, the more reasonable you will seem as a persona (we’ll talk more about this in a later lesson).

Certainly, if your subjects acted in ways you feel abdicated their right to be treated fairly, that’s a reasonable feeling, but you’ll need to override it with the idea that fair treatment isn’t just about being a nice person; they still have legal rights and if you go against those, you could get into trouble.

Here is also where speculation will come in handy- you may not understand why someone did something, but if you imagine their vulnerable centers and try to guess what prompted them behave certain ways, it will benefit you (both off-page and on).

Talk to your subjects where possible

Tell those who will be in your memoir that you are writing a memoir and intend to publish it. That you wish to tell your story because you experienced something important and meaningful and you want to bring the same catharsis, meaning, and clarity to others. Tell them you will do everything you can to protect their privacy and to protect them from harm. You are not out to hurt them or highlight them. If you can, show them the drafts.

Some people will give their blessing; others will say you do as you must and not like it but respect your choices, and some may sever ties.

As a memoirist, you do have to prepare yourself for all of the above. Their responses may also open you up to considering shifting into autofiction or fiction.

People will also surprise you- they may be uncomfortable but ultimately not only supportive but proud to be part of your story. Or they may decide they want to help by giving their thoughts or perspectives on events or relationships, opening up further opportunity for you to provide detail and insight.

book cover for essay anthology with brunette girl looking anxiousA Word on Turning Yourself and Others Into Characters

Firstly bear in mind you won’t be writing them in all their human complexity (nor will you be able to do this for yourself!) All of the people in your book will be real-feeling, round, and complicated, but only as much as they need to be within the scope of this story.

When I wrote an essay for the anthology, The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt (Penguin), people commonly said to me after reading it, “I feel like I know you.”

This was good to hear because it means I did my job well, but it also felt odd. I only “became” a fully-realized human being on the page within the scope of the situation, and a carefully curated one at that, again to further the purpose of the piece.

You will be doing the same with your memoir; you, but a curated version of yourself within the framework of the story. Your siblings, parents, friends or co-workers, but a “presented” version that serves the story as well.

Technical Craft: How to Turn Real People into Characters

First: Capture Their Accurate Details- Character Journal

Remind yourself of the details of those who will appear in the book (including yourself!): look at pictures, videos, and read anything they ever wrote to you. Remember how they smelled. Their hands. Nervous ticks, habits and mannerisms, their eyes.

memoir notebook beside stack of memoirs

Keeping a “character journal,” will enable you to jot down those details and keep them all in one place. 

Second: Turn those Attributes Inside Out to Protect Their Identities

It’s considered accepted practice in memoir to change identifying characteristics of others who appear in your book: name, skin, eye and hair color, body type, and job or whereabouts (if necessary) to protect their privacy.

In 2017, a young fiction writer named Kristen Roupenian wrote a story called “Cat Person” that was picked up by The New Yorker and went viral. Unfortunately the writer used numerous real-life details for one of the characters, which found their way back to the real person. The woman’s privacy dismantled, she “felt invaded” and wrote about it in 2021 causing a bit of a firestorm about privacy concerns in writing.

Some writers came to Roupenian’s aid by talking about how all of life is material. Which it is.

“I have held every human I’ve ever met upside down by the ankles and shaken every last detail that I can steal out of their pockets.”

~ Lauren Groff

But it’s still our job to differentiate our rights as artists with the rights of those who unwittingly appear in our work and have no control over the fact that they are appearing or how they are portrayed.

three women wearing converse sneakers

Bringing Your Character to Life on the Page

Character Starting Points

Through the act of developing your characters as you write them (or them showing you who they are as they “become,”) characters will typically begin to reveal themselves. Note: I refer to your subjects as “characters” because your real-life people will need to develop on the page just as would any fictional character.

  • When Sally is nervous, she bites the tip of her left pinkie
  • Gus is insecure about his mid-section, so he habitually plucks at his T-shirt
  • Joe ruffles the back of his hair when he’s perplexed
  • Lou lashes out when she’s feeling threatened

Some writers make character maps (which you can do in your character journal) to capture bits of memory or aspects of those figures in your book: their traits, backstory, and other info either in part or in full during the outlining phase.

You may wish to create full “character sketches” for each of them, so they can begin to take shape for you as characters on the page.

  • Where the character was born
  • Where their parents were born/family heritage
  • What kind of childhood they had
  • Things they like to do for pleasure
  • Their general state of health, belief system, and moral compass
  • Secrets they’re keepingAnd most importantly:
  • What their relationship with you is in this story and how they affect you or factor into this time of your life or your life generally.

man wearing hat walking in park

How to Make Your Characters Feel Real


Flat Characters vs. Round

A Flat Character

A flat character is a stereotype or lacks complexity. Unless one is writing comedy sketches or satire, in memoir, there is rarely reason to write such a character, even if they only make a brief appearance.

Residing on known traits for a “type” of person weakens the overall energy of the book and your credibility as an author. There is no such thing as “a frat boy” or an “Italian playboy” or the “uptight hair-in-a-bun librarian who lets it all down at night.” These stereotypes- like idiomatic expressions- are the lazy writer’s shorthand.

Because no one is so flat, if they’re not given their human due with complexity, they can come across as “other” which puts them at arm’s length from the reader.

Can this happen beside your best intentions? Of course. These stereotypes are long-standing and deeply rooted.  Like with details that are less specific or word combinations you’ve heard before, gently cross them out, write an alternative, and keep going forward.

*The key word is integrity.

Maintaining a human being’s core integrity as you render them on the page is vital. This is a must to consider when writing outside of your own racial, ethnic, religious, sexual, or other lived experiences.

In such a case, due diligence to honor their human center is that much more warranted.

A Round Character

A round character is one with a rich, quirky life. This character is complicated, “roughed up,” and doesn’t fit into a single drawer (quite like the person would certainly be in real life).

Empathy and a few key details are all you need to create real-feeling, round characters. Someone who has hurt you, for example, could be painted to be sinister, or they could be “roughed up” and made as complicated as they are with vulnerability, a penchant for loud sweaters, or a love of sweets.

Now, if you want us to find that character mean-spirited or judgmental or insecure, you’ll need to ensure that the details you use to illustrate this person are accurate and verifiable and showcase this personality trait. Above all, we shouldn’t hate or love any one character (think of the audience reaction to Vaudeville theater: Boo! Hiss! Awww!)

  • Grandmothers don’t always wear aprons and live to bake pie (though if we’re talking about pie, my next door neighbor, who is in her 40s and owns a boutique hair salon, totally does.)
  • Real men often love quiche (especially if made by my next door neighbor).
  • And ethnic or gender groups are not collectively bad drivers, hooligans, cheap, good neighbors, mean people, or skilled at any one thing, so please don’t ever ever go there.

A memoirist’s job is to paint the world as you experienced it, be a responsible literary citizen, and change things for the better. 

What a pleasure it is to break old tropes when it comes to crafting people on the page; what a joy it is to flout small thinking when it comes to leaving tried and true stereotypes in the dust. We’re in the driver’s seat to change the world, and it all begins with our characters.

grandmother holding 2 granddaughters' hands

Tips for Writing Characters: Channel Them with Empathy

Beginning with empathy enables you to start at your character’s human heart and work outward. Let them invade you- one human inside another.

Like with yourself as the protagonist, you’ll want to tap into what they wanted both overall for the book and on a micro level for each scene in which they’re present so they have a linear purpose on the page.

Their Voice

If you intend to show others talking on the page, and certainly you will, you’ll want to give yourself some off-page time to recall how they sound: the speed and pitch of their speaking style, the cadence, word choice, and verbal tics.

Tip: One way to give them the opportunity to talk to you so you can render their dialogue realistically on the page is to use your character journal as a sandbox where you can let them jabber at you. Have them tell you a story or ask you for something.

The longer you let them talk, the more they have the opportunity to develop and become unique from you (a danger of writing others is they can start to sound like you). Let the sentences take on their own particular rise and fall. Play with what vocabulary they’d use- and also with tone, subtext, and what it means when they go quiet.

Then, when you eventually put your characters into a scene containing dialogue, you’ll be able to maintain a firm hold on each character’s voice and personality, so they remain distinct.

Character: Perception & Revelation


Mood Dictates Experience

All characters are engines of perception. A character’s mood/emotional state and internal landscape will influence how they interpret the outside world.

For Example:

Your character has been fired from his job. He goes home and walks into the living room. He may notice the water stain at the seam of the ceiling or the scratches on the furniture. He may decide the air smells stale or disgustingly sweet from the blooming lilac bush outside the open window.

How he experiences his surroundings will be markedly different from his 17-year-old son who comes in a few hours later and is feeling awesome because he just got hired for a great summer job. He may see one last can of his favorite drink in the fridge and feel so satisfied with his lot, or enjoy the way the sun comes into the room at a particularly pretty angle.

Knowing what each person in your scenes wanted at the time will help you understand what mood or state they were in and support you in having them interact with others in that vein.

Technical Details: How to Reveal Character Traits (the 2-3 rule!)

When a character first enters a story, like in real life, we’re “meeting” or “seeing” this person for the first time. As you will have done with setting, giving just a few details that do a lot with little to communicate what kind of person this is and/or something physical about them is usually plenty.

Some writers are able to hold the reader’s attention for longer with establishing details, but it’s a matter of walking the line of giving just enough to hold on to and getting us interested without losing the reader by providing too much.

What to Show

Appearance: body, clothes, voice, smell, habits, repeated movements, a wrinkle that appears and disappears when they are listening intently …

Action: How the character moves: in short spurts, languidly, does he look at the ground when walking thereby noticing only what’s ankle high …

Thoughts: what they think but don’t say

Contradictions: when what they do and say are in opposition

Narrative Methods for Bringing Forth Your Character


  • Backstory or General PersonalityIf this person has a history we need to know before the story’s start or directly after we meet the character, providing that backstory or information about the character is perfectly acceptable.Backstory, when well-realized, can end up becoming an almost secondary real-time action, and the reader will give over to it as they did the real-time narrative.But if you’re pausing to illustrate some aspect of the character that’s more static, the best option is to aim to cover a tremendous amount of material in a short space with exposition, write it as dynamically and vividly as possible, and get back to the action.

“Her name was Connie.  She was fifteen and she had a quick nervous giggling habit of craning her neck to glance into mirrors, or checking other people’s faces to make sure her own was all right.”

Joyce Carol Oates, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”

  • Portrait of Appearance (General Personality or What the Character Is Doing Currently)

    Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress. Her hand and wrist were so finely formed that she could wear sleeves not less bare of style than those in which the blessed Virgin appeared to Italian painters; and her profile as well as her stature and bearing seemed to gain the more dignity from her plain garments, which by the side of provincial fashion gave her the impressiveness of a fine quotation from the Bible—or from one of our elder poets—in a paragraph of today’s newspaper.

    George Eliot, Middlemarch


    For the beauty of the bride in her white over-robe no comparisons were adequate.  In the eyes, round beneath soft brows, the slender, finely shaped nose, and in the full lips, there was both sensuousness and refinement.  One hand, emerging shyly from a sleeve of the over-robe, held a fan, and the tips of the fingers, clustering delicately, were like the bud of a moonflower.

    Yukio Mishima, “Patriotism”

  • Action  

His measured, springless walk was the walk of the skilled countryman as distinct from the desultory shamble of the general labourer; while in the turn and plant of each foot there was, further, a dogged and cynical indifference personal to himself.

Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge

  • One character in the story is the narrator and tells the reader about another character

When I came back from the East last autumn I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever; I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart. Only Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book, was exempt from my reaction—Gatsby, who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn.

Nick, the narrator, talking about Jay Gatsby, the protagonist of the book, The Great Gatsby

  • Direct self-portrait

I am a sick man … I am a spiteful man. I am an ugly man. I believe my liver is diseased.  However, I know nothing at all about my disease, and do not know for certain what ails me.  I don’t consult a doctor for it, and never have, though I have a respect for medicine and doctors. Besides, I am extremely superstitious, sufficiently so to respect medicine, anyway (I am well-educated enough not to be superstitious, but I am superstitious).  No, I refuse to consult a doctor from spite … My liver is bad, well—let it get worse!

Fyodor Dostoyevski, Notes From Underground

This character thinks in his character, and tells us of his outward and inward self.  He thinks in paradoxes, spitefully, in intentional self-contradictions.

excerpted from Fiction Writer’s Workshop, Josip Novakovich

Take Note of the Power of Showing Your Character v. the Power of Telling

When portraying your character, you get to decide whether you want a layer of remove, to impart facts, or to span a great deal of narrative time, or whether you want the reader to feel a visceral connection to your character.

Tell:  Joe was a rough looking auto mechanic who loved his cat.

Show: Joe shrugged off his coat and sneered at the oil on his sleeve. “Always something,” he said. He paused at his cat, mewling at his feet. His face softened, and he smiled. “I know, boss, I know.” He crouched down and tickled his cat under the chin until the cat was purring into his hand.

Reading & Resources

Homo Sapiens vs. Homo Fictus, Or Why a Lot of Knowledge Can Be a Dangerous Thing Too,” David Jauss. The Writer’s Chronicle (March/April 2013) *This is a lengthy and very interesting article

How Famous Writers Write Characters

“How to Use Real People in Your Writing,” Helen Sedwick

“Cat Person,” Kristen Roupenian

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Lesson 15: Dialogue & Narrative Voice

In this lesson:

  • The meaning & purpose of dialogue
  • From real life to the page
  • Accents, Dialects, and Languages
  • Subtext & conflict
  • Narrative voice
  • Creating character voices

I. Dialogue

What Is Dialogue?

Dialogue is the words spoken aloud in a scene between 2 or more characters (conversation).

Inner dialogue is the words a character thinks, so we “hear” the character thinking.

Monologue is the narrator speaking aloud: you talking directly to the reader.

Dialogue: From Real Life to the Page

In real life, many conversations just aren’t that interesting.

Hey, how are you?

Oh, fine, fine. How are you doing?

Good, really. You know, same thing.

Yeah, I know.

How’s Bob?

Oh, yeah, he’s OK.  He’s still getting into his new job, you know, trying to figure out all the new technology, deal with the longer commute, stuff like that.

Yeah, I know, that’s hard.

(Reader dies of boredom)

Dialogue in memoir is actually a very specific device. It must:

  • push forward the plot
  • reveal character and relationships

Dialogue Should Straddle Realism & Artifice (Think of It as “Readable Realism” with an Agenda)

Where conversation in real life is often an exchange without any purpose or motivation, in a narrative, you want to strive for a higher-level artful or readable realism, which means in this case, dialogue is planted to accomplish these two things.

That’s not to say dialogue needs to sound like two seasoned secret agents on a mission- absolutely not! It can and should further the characters’ natural language with repetition, stammering, expressions, poor grammar, awkward starts and stops, and subtext, all expressing the unique inner musicality of the speaker, but also in a way that’s readable, keeps the pacing bright, and accomplishes either character/relationship revelation or plot furthering.

Pro tip: cross check all instances of dialogue to make sure those conversations are either pushing the story or the character relationships forward.

The Challenge of Dialogue

letter slot in door

“Many people have a gift for language that flows when they are talking and dries up when they are confronted with the blank page, or when they are trying to make the characters on it speak.”

Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer

For some writers, namely those who have big ears or chameleon tendencies, dialogue is a lot of fun; for others, it’s far harder. Fo you, having to recreate actual conversations (largely from memory) is yet more challenging (again you’ll be doing this within reason, which is where supposition-type language will come in handy).

Wherever you land on the spectrum of loving dialogue to hating it, to help yourself write artful realistic dialogue that’s rich with characterization and subtext, try to follow these rules:

Rules for Dialogue

  1. Every word must be there for a reason
  2. Something must be at stake with every line. It can be something small, or it can be large, but there must be something that both parties want or need to share for a reason in the conversation.
  3. Dialogue should serve its ultimate narrative purpose which is to move the plot/characters along and reveal/illuminate character
  4. Characters must have their own individual voices. This takes practice, so you can get into hearing them speak in your head.


word magnets on white background

Writing Craft: How to Handle Accents, Dialects, and Languages Other than the Target Language of the Book

To give a quick breakdown:

  • Accent: An accent is the sounds of one language (usually one’s mother tongue) influencing how a second language (the used target language) is spoken.

When my Spanish friend Natalia says my name in English, she pronounces it “Yaeyna,” as in Spanish, the “J” sound is a “Y”. (Moreover, the “Y” sound is a “J,” so when she used to tease me and say, “Yaeyna, jou are tha weerdest vegetareian I have evar seen,” that was her speaking English influenced by her mother tongue of Spanish as well as her being completely right: I may not eat red meat, but when there’s BBQ on the wind, I will follow the scent for miles).

How do the French say “hello” in English? “Allo.” “Have”? “‘ave.”

How does my friend from Tennessee say “friend”? “Frind.”

How does my kid say “lunch”? “Launch.” Why? I have no idea. Kids are weird.

Here is how Diana Gabaldon handles a Scottish brogue in her novel Outlander:

There was nae doubt, ye see, of Colum’s courage, nor yet of his mind, but only of his body. ’Twas clear he’d never be able to lead his men into battle again. . . . So a suggestion was made that Colum be allowed to become laird, as he should in the ordinary way, and Dougal be made war chieftain, to lead the clan in time of battle.”


  • Dialect: Dialect is a sub-language of a mother language, the rendering of accented or patois-heavy target language from a non-native speaking character through specific syntax.

Some world locations are rich with dialects. Where I used to live in Germany, near Frankfurt, I was flanked by several dialects. I would leave my house in the morning and people would say “Morgen,” (Good morning), then after a 20- minute train ride across the Main river, I would arrive to work, get in the elevator, and the nice janitor would greet me with “Moiszhe.” Germany is a small country, about the size of California, and while it has one official language, it has 250 noted dialects. Or then there’s India, which has 22 official languages and 720 dialects.


Here’s a fantastic example of dialect- London Cockney English:

Ow, eez ye-ooa san, is e? Wal, fewd dan y’ de-ooty bawmz a mather should, eed now bettern to spawl a pore gel’s flahrzn than ran awy atbaht pyin. Will ye-oo py me f’them?

George Bernard Shaw, Pygmalion


This video is extremely funny (WARNING: it also has a naughty word in the first few seconds) and it’s a fantastic example of how varied the dialects and accents can exist in a small country!


Toni Morrison and Frank McCourt are other authors who are known for capturing dialect extremely well.

(Click here for a few additional examples.)

Writing in dialect can be a very rich way of bringing forth character. It can also be challenging for writers who aren’t innately familiar with it. Unless it’s executed spotlessly (see examples above), it can call too much attention to itself and/or be exhausting to read. Also if it’s inaccurately or stereotypically rendered, it can come across as caricature and is not advised.

  • Language in another language than the target language of the book: any alternative language used that is not the target language of your book.


Many writers use other languages in their English books as a dynamic way to bring in additional character trait.

Technical Note: How to Write Accent, Dialect or Language

Accent & Dialect

A good rule of thumb is to establish the accent or dialect then then taper off from the fullness of it while still reminding us here and there with words or phrases. (Unless you’re as able as was Toni Morrison to write whole books in dialect pitch-perfectly, in which case, no such rule applies. Ever.)

If the dialect isn’t familiar to you, ask fellow writers for help, get recordings or watch videos of people speaking in that dialect and transfer the sounds to the page.

NOTE: In your case in this first draft, rather than slow down your daily process, a good strategy is to write the English equivalent (or whatever language you’re writing your novel in) and highlight those areas for changing out later.


How you choose to treat the additional languages is your call.

  1. Incorporate long sections of untranslated language, and let them flavor the character and tone without translating for the English-speaking reader. Junot Diaz is one writer who does this beautifully.
  2. Translate some of the non-English language in dialogue, either by having another character “answer” the non-English dialogue in English, so we can infer from their response what the non-English language meant.Ex: “Das kann ich nicht,” said Gerhardt, shaking his head.
    Lucia laughed and waved her hand at him. “Of course you can, don’t be silly.”
  3. Simply flavor your narrative or dialogue with single words or phrases, and we will understand from the context- or not!- and that’s simply our experience of the story.

Subtext & Conflict


  • Rarely do on-page characters say what they mean

In dialogue, like in life, people rarely say what they mean.  They skirt the issue, say less than they wanted to, fight about the toast when the marriage is falling apart.

Do what you can to both re-create actual dialogue but also to craft it so it again furthers the moment, invites tension, or illustrates the characters and/or their relationships.

  • Less is more

The more restrained the dialogue, the better. If your characters say, “I’m angry with you because you don’t take me seriously,” or “I don’t feel like a priority in your life,” that bald dialogue robs us of the right to dramatic tension. Even if it happened that way, you might be able to gently craft the dialogue so it does not come across as baldly level 10, which loses its dramatic impact on the page.

You may find the conversations you remember were innocuous on the surface but the emotional tenor residing beneath the words was high. Take your time rendering these moments because they are fantastic for creating dramatic tension on the page.

[Now, I actually do know quite a lot of people who speak so candidly about their feelings, but I am from Los Angeles where there are a lot of people seeking paths of higher self-awareness. Or they are simply less guarded because they’re accustomed to not having to wear a lot of clothes. So my memoir would have to foster its own kind of tension in the subtext beneath people speaking so candidly.]

*Remember Ron Carlson’s advice to leave your characters in the pot of simmering water and letting them squirm?  The memoirist has the double duty of creating this kind of narrative tension out of existing experiences- a mosaic of life reordered for max dramatic impact.


two one-way street signs

Internal Conflict & Inconsistency

  • Conflict

Everyone is conflicted within.  We want to do the right thing, but we are selfish. Or exhausted. Or simply have other plans.

  • A young mother who hadn’t planned to have children
  • An athlete offered steroids
  • A man in an unsatisfying long term relationship meets a lovely woman at a party.

Can you think of a contradiction (or two) in yourself you can put into your persona or your characters? *Note: more contradictions invite more empathy and a rounder, more dynamic character.

  • Navigating The Personas We Inhabit

The people we admire, the ones we believe have it all together, totally sewn up, are usually those who are damaged on the inside and do all they can to hold the seams of themselves together with their external.

Remember a time when you were not yourself (physically, emotionally, etc.) yet held it together on the outside and had everyone fooled?

singing bird

II. Managing Voices of Yourself & Others as Characters



If you recall our lesson on finding, nurturing, and owning your persona (Lesson 9), you’ll by this point be that much smoother in owning your on-page self.

That said, sometimes it can happen- particularly if you have chameleon tendencies, that if you are reading books while writing this one or spending quality time with a single person, you may pick up on that author or person(s) innate lyricism and start to inadvertently shift in your word use, tone, or narrative voice overall.

No one is impervious to outside influence, which on one hand, this is normal and good- you’re the product of all the life you’ve lived, right? On the other hand, however, problematic for the purposes of this book as you may be shifting away from your persona in spots or can veer off course.

You’ll catch any inconsistencies in revision, so please don’t comb back through your draft! But from now on, here are some preventative measures you can take to maintain a consistent narrative voice:

  • No more memoirs! Read  another genre while you’re writing this book.
  • Toggle between several memoirs at the same time. This may offer enough outside voice to prevent one specifically from seeping into your own.



Creating Character Voices for Dialogue

One of the best ways to capture another person’s speech rhythms is to listen to them as they were during the time of your book. If they are still alive, a conversation will be exceedingly helpful; if they are not, or you cannot talk to them, videos or letters are also terrific, and if you don’t have that, then memory will suffice.

Use your character journal, get quiet, look at a photo of them if possible, and listen to them talk.

Crafting Others on the Page

Prose Rhythm to Indicate Character

How you structure your sentences will indicate not only a character’s natural personality but also the state they’re in (physical or emotional).

  • A character who is jogging will speak to her running partner in short huffed sentences.
  • Two old friends fishing off a pier in a remote lake will speak meditatively. Imagine their sentences. There’s no rush, no one else around.
  • A stressed out character may be shorter of breath or have a more clipped tone, with short, choppy sentences; wistful longer sentences that trail off; or angry bursts of sentence with quieter sentences in between.
  • Someone in grief or depression: what might that person’s dialogue sound like?


Examples of Prose Rhythm


Novelists and short story writers tend not to reinforce sense with sound in the way a poet will, though stronger, more engaging prose will heighten the musical aspect of a novel’s overall language.

Prose is fairly forgiving but the cadence should complement the meaning to amplify both beautifully.

Look at what happens if they are in contradiction:

The river moved slowly.  It seemed sluggish.  The surface lay flat.  Birds circled lazily overhead.  Jon’s boat slipped forward.

Short clipped sentences and parallel structures, subject, verb, modifier, work against the sense of slow flowing movement.  The rhythm could be effective if the character whose eyes we’re using is not appreciating or sharing the calm; otherwise, this sentence longs for a rewrite.


The surface lay flat on the sluggish, slow-moving river, and the birds circled lazily overhead as Jon’s boat slipped forward.


Here, the prose flows better in accurate reflection of the action.


The first impression I had as I stopped in the doorway of the immense City Room was of extreme rush and bustle, with the reporters moving rapidly back and forth in the long aisles in order to shove their copy at each other or making frantic gestures as they shouted into their many telephones.


This long and leisurely sentence doesn’t reflect sense of rush and bustle.


I stopped in the doorway.  The city room was immense, reporters rushing down the aisles, shoving copy at each other, bustling back again, flinging gestures, shouting into telephones.

First Person Voice & Prose Rhythm 

When a character tells the reader their own story, it’s in monologue and in that character’s voice. This is a rich opportunity for you to create a whole interior world for your character.


Technical Work: How Do You Create a Whole Person in Voice?

three smiling people


Excerpts from Memoirs 


He was, I think, very handsome. I gather this from photographs and from my own memories of him, dressed in his Sunday best and on his way to preach a sermon somewhere, when I was little. Handsome, proud, and ingrown, “like a toenail,” somebody said.

James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son


On the bus ride home, I stuffed my shame between the dry, cracked leather of the seat and assumed the matter had been dealt with. The driver, a zealous sort, found my crumpled failure and handed it to my mother when he dropped me off the next day. She was not pleased. I was not pleased with her displeasure. I never wanted to experience that feeling again. I vowed to be better. I vowed to be the best.

Roxanne Gay, The Price of Black Ambition

The teacher killed some time accusing the Yugoslavian girl of masterminding a program of genocide, and I jotted frantic notes in the margins of my pad. While I can honestly say that I love leafing through medical textbooks devoted to severe dermatological conditions, it is beyond the reach of my French vocabulary, and acting it out would only have invited unwanted attention.

David Sedaris, Me Talk Pretty One Day

Learning to embrace the bend and sway, the fits and starts, and the unique lyricism of your narrative voice on the page is a lot like learning to accept yourself as a person. Your voice is unique to you and yours alone, and like it or not, it’s here to stay. You can adjust it or adapt it, but when you come home it’s to the sound of yourself. Love it: it is what makes you you. And it’s what the reader will fall in love with.

Readings & Resources

John Chu, “Stand Back! I’m Going to Quote About Junot Díaz (Thinking about language)” *An excellent and thorough article and conversation about accents, dialects, and language use in books.

Babbel.com: Accents and Dialects

Anne Korkeakivi, “When I’m Writing Fiction, I Cannot Read It”

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