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The devil is in the details, that’s what they say, and there are few details of novel writing more devilish than dialogue… if you can get it right, however (both in sound and grammar), your editor and proofreader will definitely thank you! You probably remember being hounded by your school English teacher to “always write in full sentences” , I know I was, but the truth is real people very rarely speak that way. Very often you need to scrap the rule book when writing dialogue, but here are some general guidelines you can rely on.
Said is not dead
For the love of God put your thesaurus down. Now. I’m going to tell you a story that doomed budding authors everywhere.
Once upon a time some “well actually” idiot opined the opinion that it was possible to over-use “said” as a dialogue indicator. This evil sorcerer/ress was so convincing that would-be writers everywhere quickly bought thesauruses and began to memorise a list of words that meant said in all its many forms, and so a period of confused darkness fell on the world of fiction. Characters began to whimper, snark, mutter, postulate, retort, and snarl instead of speaking plainly, and many an editor weeped.
Scary stuff, right? Well, it’s based on a true story. Your story, perhaps, if you don’t drop that thesaurus and listen to me. Said is not dead; said is in vogue, said is the speech tag, and it should really be the only one you need unless the circumstances are unusual or exceptional. The point of a speech tag is to indicate who says what, no more and no less. They should not draw attention to themselves. they should not shout and dance, and thought typing or writing the word over and over may grate on you, for most readers it’s part of the furniture.
Said is so commonplace and expected that most readers skim over it. If you want your book to scream “THIS IS ONLY FICTION, DON’T GET TOO IMMERSED”, however, you should throw it under the bus.
Get your grammar on
Punctuating dialogue is a pitfall for eve n seasoned writers, so don’t feel too bad about your own shortcomings. It’s not something we’re actively taught (at least not when I was at school in Scotland), so you have to learn as you go. Here are some of the basics to keep you right;
- If you’re punctuating your dialogue with commas it’s very important where you’re putting speech tags. If you’re attributing before the dialogue the comma goes outside the quotation s so,
Maria said, “I can’t believe you!”
If the speech tag comes after the dialogue place the comma within the quotation, and so on, if you’re breaking up dialogue,
“I can’t believe you,” Maria said, “I thought you were better than that!”
If you’re attributing with a pronoun it is not capitalised when using commas,
She said, “I thought I knew what I was doing.”
- If you’re ending dialogue with a period, exclamation mark, or question mark the punctuation goes within the quotation.
- Abruptly interrupted dialogue is marked with an em-dash,
“But I thought-“
“You thought what?” She said,
- Ellipsis indicated dialogue trailing away,
“If you only knew…” Sam said, shaking her head,
- When breaking up dialogue you can use commas or em-dashes, just stick to the same one once you decide which to use,
“I just,” Sam said, pacing the room, “I feel so angry!”
“She has no idea” – John threw himself into the chair – “no idea of what I do for her.”
Adverbs Vs Actions
Ah yes, the old enemy; the Adverb! It’s a certainty that if you’ve been opining and snarling through dialogue you’ll be tempted to bolster said (now that I’ve converted you!) with adverbs of all shapes and descriptions. But there is another way.
Actions; don’t tell your readers they “said loudly” or “said sadly”, show them how the character feels with their body language. Consider this.
“How could you do this to me?” She said sadly,
“How could you do this to me?” She pressed a tissue to the skin below her eyes with shaking hands, blinking rapidly.
Both tell you that she is sad, but which makes it believable? Actions are as useful as words, and twice as useful as adverbs, so think about how you can incorporate them in your dialogue.
You can often tell when people are close, or related, by the similarity in their speech patterns. Therefore it is very important that you consider how your characters speak when writing dialogue; some will use slang, few will speak entirely correctly, most will hesitate. The dialogue can’t just sound natural, it has to suit the person it comes from if you want your readers to buy into it, and it has to set each character apart. If you’re having trouble with this try listening to the people around you, watching interviews, and even listening to stand-up comedians. If you’re having trouble with getting it right try reading your dialogue out loud to see if it feels awkward or clunky.
Silence and indirect speech
Dialogue need not be a blow-by-blow in every instance; indirect speech can offer a good way to set a scene and atmosphere without running over a load of milieu that your readers don’t care about. Instead of five pages of characters discussing football, just say
Jay settled in, ordered a beer, and they chatted about the upcoming game while waiting on Sam.
But be careful not to employ indirect speech incorrectly. This should give the impression of a world going on around the story, not read like you’re an eavesdropper on a boring conversation;
Jay settled in, ordered a beer, and asked Tony what he thought of the Rovers chances. Tony replied that they were likely to lose as Dempster was injured, but if Vega was playing they might have a chance.
You can see how this would get boring quickly.
Just as important as dialogue and indirect speech, however is silence. Real people don’t always have something to say in every situation, or if they do they might not wish to say it for fear of the reaction it would inspire. Cultivate effective silences and you’ll find that your stories come alive a little more easily, just remember not to over-narrate when you do so; what makes silences in dialogue so powerful is that they hold more than one implication, when you fill the silence with cack-handed narration you rob it of all meaning and power.
“We can’t afford to keep him, Sarah,” John said, scratching his head, “the operation costs three months rent.”
“I know.” She said,
“He’s only a dog, honey, we’ll get another. When we can afford pet insurance.”
Sarah stared at her short, ragged nails and the red, peeling skin around them.
“It’s for the best.” He said,
Sarah swallowed and pulled some loose skin from her cuticle with her front teeth.
If you were to add to this scene it would ruin the impact;
She couldn’t believe he was being so cruel; Baxter wasn’t just a dog, he was her best friend. He had been with her through thick and thin, he was always there when she needed him. John couldn’t see that her heart was breaking, and it made her wonder if their marriage was worth it. Maybe she should keep Baxter and get rid of John.
Now you’re not feeling the tension, or the weight of the silence. Worse still you’re telling the reader what they should be able to deduce for themselves from previous scenes. Dialogue can make or break your stories so it’s key that you get in as much practice as you can, and that you never stop improving it.
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