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How to Write Creative Nonfiction: Dialogue and Action

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March 2010
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Revealing Character through Dialogue and Action

Readers are interested the comments, conversations, and behaviour of real people. For instance, the public was fascinated about the sexual indiscretions of Tiger Woods. And the media was quick to report on the story. Some would call it tabloid journalism.

Your goal in writing creative nonfiction is to recreate the events or experience of the true story for the reader. But you must state the facts and write the story using literary techniques. Revealing character through dialogue and revealing character through action are two important literary techniques that you can use to recreate the story.

This article discusses how you can reveal character through dialogue and through action.

Developing Character through Dialogue

What is dialogue? It refers to the words spoken by real people. It can be a comment made by a person or a conversation by two or more people. Your job is to recapture the important comments and conversations. You can remember dialogue by carefully observing what a person says and then writing it down later. If you are interviewing a person, you can make notes or use a tape recorder. If you are attempting to remember dialogue, you will have to recreate the dialogue to the best of your memory. Often you will need to interview family and friends, look at old photos, or revisit the place where the event took place.  Be forewarned, if  you include comments, conversations, or dialogue that never occurred, you are writing fiction, not creative nonfiction.

Purpose of Dialogue

According to Dinty Moore, who is the author of the fantastic book, Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction, including dialogue in your narrative has two benefits:

  1. Dialogue changes the flow or pace of the narrative, providing texture.
  2. Dialogue gives the reader the opportunity to interpret or judge the content of the dialogue and determine what sort of personality/character you are writing about.


Your goal as a creative nonfiction writer is remember and write about important comments and dialogue. It must reveal character or develop the story. For instance, a conversation between two people can be an important event in the story. It can even be a turning point. Suppose you are writing your memoir, a story in which your wife tells you she is going to leave you. She wants a divorce. This conversation might be a turning point in your life, a significant event that you might wish to share with your readers.

Writing dialogue is an important way to show, not tell your readers what happened. It helps to dramatize the story. It helps to recreate what happened. It is part of recreating the scene.

Developing Character through Action

What is action? It refers the behaviour or conduct of a person or people. In writing about a personal essay or memoir, your responsibility is to recreate the action in the story. Action moves a narrative forward and provides meaning to the readers. By writing about the conduct or behaviour of a person, you give the reader the opportunity to form an opinion about the personality or character of the person. Describing the action is part of recreating the scene and part of dramatizing the story. Without action, you have no story.

Developing character through action can involve writing about your own behaviour or other people’s behaviour. If you are writing about your own behaviour, you should be honest with yourself. Readers want to know who you are. Your foibles, character flaws, follies, and vices are part of you. If you are writing about someone else, you need to be able to observe the person’s behaviour and make note of it. You also need to become aware of your own prejudices and biases, and then explore them.

When writing about the conduct or behaviour of real people, you must show, not tell your readers. When you show readers how a person acted or behaved, you are dramatizing the story, recreating the event, and composing a realistic story, one that can engross readers.

Good creative nonfiction recreates the scene. In part, scene is composed of dialogue and action. Developing characters through dialogue and action are two techniques that allow you to dramatize your story. A dramatic story captures the attention of the reader and inspires them to read your work.

If you have any questions or comments, please post them to this blog.

Next, I will discuss how you can dramatize a scene, another important technique in writing creative nonfiction.



  1. essay says:

    That was an excellently written essay, thank you so much.

  2. Ray Payne says:

    Creative non-fiction, take the facts of the happenings, throw out all of the rules, build your story with action and dialogue.

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