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Friday, April 19

How to Format Remembered Dialogue

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Characters remember conversations and things said. When they do, odds are it's important to the story and the scene, but you don't want it to read like you just crammed the information in there. Like the rest of your narrative, you want it to flow seamlessly and read naturally. Which can be tough when a thought or memory hits a character out of the blue.

How you format remembered dialogue varies, same as internal dialogue. A lot depends on how you're using it, how much there is, and the style you prefer. You can also mix and match, using, say, introductory phrases and italics, or italics with the narrative.

One thing that's fairly consistent though, is a clue that this is a memory. Rarely do you just see remembered dialogue dropped in with no explanation at all, because then it looks like an internal thought or actual dialogue and throws the reader.
Bob stopped at the edge of the creek, just before it curved into the woods. "Watch out when you hit the bend--big crawler infestation near there."

Bob nodded. Right. He gripped the shotgun tighter and started forward.
Doesn't that read like something Bob just now said? Which makes no sense because readers have no idea who he's talking to or what he's talking about. Maybe they'll remember someone else told him that, maybe not. A little head's up for the reader is needed.

Option 1: An Introductory Phrase


The easiest way to let reader's know a line is remembered dialogue is to tell them. It reminds the reader about the memory, and then shows the memory.
Bob stopped at the edge of the creek, just before it curved into the woods. Miguel's words echoed in his mind. "Watch out when you hit the bend--big crawler infestation near there."

Bob nodded. Right. He gripped the shotgun tighter and started forward.
One thing to be aware of here, is that many memory introductions have become a little clichéd because they're used so much (yep, even I use them). Words echo in minds, pop into heads, strike from nowhere. Don't do any word gymnastics to avoid it (that only makes it worse), but it's not a bad idea to think about what words you use for this type of phrase. Try to be fresh and link it to something that fits your story or character's personality when possible.

(More on word gymnastics)

If you don't like introductory phrases, you could always try...

Option 2: Remind the Reader


Another easy way is to reminder the reader someone said something when the POV character remembers it.
Bob stopped at the edge of the creek, just before it curved into the woods. "Watch out when you hit the bend," Miguel had told him. "Big crawler infestation near there."

Bob nodded. Right. He gripped the shotgun tighter and started forward.
Same clue and reminder about where the dialogue came from, but it flows a little better and fits the familiar dialogue format. However, be aware that breaking into dialogue could still make the reader think this is something Bob is saying. They'll see the tag pretty quickly, but this could still throw some readers.

Option 3: Use Italics


You could also visually clue in the reader of the remembered dialogue by using italics with your reminder.
Bob stopped at the edge of the creek, just before it curved into the woods. "Watch out when you hit the bend," Miguel had told him. "Big crawler infestation near there."

Bob nodded. Right. He gripped the shotgun tighter and started forward.
The italics make this clear, and it's another familiar visual clue that this is an internal thought, not actual dialogue. You could also drop the reminder completely.
Bob stopped at the edge of the creek, just before it curved into the woods. "Watch out when you hit the bend--big crawler infestation near there."

Bob nodded. Right. He gripped the shotgun tighter and started forward.
This type is trickier because it relies on the reader remembering who said the dialogue. But you can always add a few clues without saying outright "he remembered who said this."
Bob stopped at the edge of the creek, just before a sharp bend went into the woods. Miguel was right. It did look like a curve. "Watch out when you hit the curve--big crawler infestation near there."

He gripped the shotgun tighter and started forward.
Italics are handy for anything you want to emphasize, and remembered dialogue is usually remembered for important, about-to-be-relevant moments.

Option 4: Make it Part of the Narrative


Just like internalization, make the remembered dialogue sound like the character's voice. It's less intrusive and you can avoid the typical clichés or common word packages.
Bob stopped at the edge of the creek, just before it curved into the woods. What had Miguel said again? Oh right. Watch out when he hit the bend--big crawler infestation near there. He gripped the shotgun tighter and started forward.
The remembered dialogue is there, but it flows with Bob's thoughts and narrative.

(More on word packages)

Option 5: Make it its Own Line


You can also put the remembered dialogue on its own line, separating it from the rest of the narrative.
Bob stopped at the edge of the creek, just before it curved into the woods.

"Watch out when you hit the bend--big crawler infestation near there."


Bob nodded. Right. He gripped the shotgun tighter and started forward.
It fits with the traditional turn-taking structure of dialogue, as the words someone else speaks get their own line. You have additional options, as you can tag it with the speaker's name, or an introductory phrase.
"Watch out when you hit the bend--big crawler infestation near there," Miguel had told him.

Miguel's words came back to him. "Watch out when you hit the bend--big crawler infestation near there."

Bolts From the Blue


Sometimes remembered dialogue does into come out of nowhere to give a character the information they need just when they need it most. A common problem here is that can be jarring to the reader if there's no reason for it. Memories need triggers.
Bob crept through the woods, ears alert for moans, groans, and any branches breaking that he didn't break.

"Watch out when you hit the bend--big crawler infestation near there."

Bob nodded. Right. How far was he from the river?
There's nothing to make Bob remember this dialogue at this moment, so it feels awkward. But if he comes across water first, then it's a logical trigger for him to remember this line.
Bob crept through the woods, ears alert for moans, groans, and any branches breaking that he didn't break. A soft gurgle--not a zombie--whispered ahead. Water?

"Watch out when you hit the bend--big crawler infestation near there."

Bob nodded. Right. Must be the river Miguel was talking about. He gripped the shotgun tighter.
When a character needs to remember something they're not trying to remember--like a sudden realization--make sure you work up to it and add triggers so readers can see the steps that led subconsciously to that sudden thought.

Formatting Longer Conversations


Sometimes a scene requires an entire conversation to be remembered. If it's more than a few lines, consider careful if it's needed at all. If the words have already been reader by the reader, replaying the entire thing will feel repetitious, and a quick summary will likely flow better. But if this memory is more flashback of something not seen before, seeing the entire thing can work.

(More on flashbacks)

Option 1: An Introductory Phrase


The same principals apply, only this time, you'd want to clue the reader in on entering the memory as well as leaving it.
Bob stopped at the edge of the creek, just before it curved into the woods. It was just like Miguel had said. "Watch out when you hit the bend--big crawler infestation near there."

"How many?" he'd asked.

"Up to a hundred. They feed off what gets washed down the river."

"Unpleasant image."

"An unpleasant end if you forget."

Bob gripped the shotgun tighter and started forward. "Don't worry," he muttered. "I didn't."

Option 2: Remind the Reader


Again, same way as shorter memories.
Bob stopped at the edge of the creek, just before it curved into the woods. "Watch out when you hit the bend," Miguel had told him. "Big crawler infestation near there."

"How many?" he'd asked.

"Up to a hundred. They feed off what gets washed down the river."

"Unpleasant image."

"An unpleasant end if you forget."

Bob gripped the shotgun tighter and started forward. "Don't worry," he muttered. "I didn't."

Option 3: Use Italics


This is one of my personal favorites because it's very clear this is not the main narrative.
Bob stopped at the edge of the creek, just before it curved into the woods. "Watch out when you hit the bend," Miguel had told him. "Big crawler infestation near there."

"How many?"

"Up to a hundred. They feed off what gets washed down the river."

"Unpleasant image."

"An unpleasant end if you forget."


Bob gripped the shotgun tighter and started forward. "Don't worry," he muttered. "I didn't."
The drawback to this format is that italics are hard to read in large chunks, so be cautious about how long your conversation is.

Option 4: Make it Part of the Narrative

Sometimes it's more effective to summarize just the important elements of a past conversation.
Bob stopped at the edge of the creek, just before it curved into the woods. What had Miguel said again? Oh right. Watch out when he hit the bend. Some kind of crawler infestation near it. Hard to imagine hundreds of legless zombies out here, but Miguel was right about the unpleasant end--body parts from animals and people bumped against the shore where the river curved. A buffet for crawlers.

Bob gripped the shotgun tighter and started forward. He was nobody's lunch.
This is another of my favorites, as you can use past dialogue to foreshadow something you know you'll want to focus on or describe. This doesn't work as well if readers never saw the conversation, but it can be an effective way to summarize a conversation the characters may have had off-screen at an earlier date. For example, if you skipped it then because it would had move impact describing it or seeing it as it happens.

The most important thing about remembered dialogue is clarity. Readers need to know a line or scene is a memory so they don't get confused. Whatever format fits your style and flows seamlessly into your narrator is the best type to choose.

Which style is your favorite? 

If you're looking for more to improve your writing, check out one of my books: 

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for plotting a novel, and the companion Plotting Your Novel Workbook, and my Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series, with step-by-step guides to revising a novel. 



Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011). She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.
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