All around us, gravity works in less massive, unobtrusive ways. Here on Earth, gravity on a small scale keeps everything securely stuck to the surface.
In writing, punctuation serves the same function as gravity, keeping our sentences from flying apart.
Even if you aren’t writing science fiction, your work must obey certain fundamental rules, or it will be unreadable. But in this case, the physics that constrain the chaos are the laws of grammar and punctuation, the quantum mechanics of writing.
The one place where the fundamental laws of grammar are allowed to deviate from the norm is in conversation.
Creating memorable characters is the goal of all authors. After all, who would read a book if the characters are bland or uninteresting? But what is it that makes a character interesting? Is it only witty conversation and great scenery?
When you envision your characters in conversation, you must think about what the word natural means. People don’t only use their words to communicate. Bodies and faces tell us a great deal about a person’s mood and what they feel.
You want to convey those visual cues in small, unobtrusive ways by picturing your conversations and the characters who are having them.
Beats or actions serve to punctuate the dialogue, to give the scene movement, and to maintain a strong mental picture in the absence of description.
These small actions can show the mood of a character and are often best placed where there is a natural break in the dialogue. When done unobtrusively, beats allow the reader to experience the same pauses as the characters, without stopping the action. They’re an effective tool and are essential to good dialogue, but don’t overdo it.
Otherwise, just use a simple dialogue tag, like said, or replied.
Don’t make the mistake of getting rid of speech tags and attributions entirely. Even with only two characters in a scene, the verbal exchanges can become confusing. Use speech tags every third exchange or so to keep things clear for your reader. Nothing is worse than trying to figure out which character said what.
Even worse, the action takes over. The dialogue fades into the background, obscured by the visual noise of foot shuffling and paper rattling. For this reason, we don’t want to inject an excess of flushing, smirking, eye-rolling, or shrugging into the story. Each of those actions has a specific use in conveying the mood, but anything used too frequently becomes a crutch. We must be creative, the hardest part of being an author.
What about exclamations and verbal tics? We frequently speak this way in real life, but we don’t want it in our work, so I recommend you avoid using them.
When an author employs exclamations and verbal tics to excess, it is exhausting for the reader to wade through. Paragraphs peppered with instance after instance of “Ahhhh…” “Ugh!” “Yuck!” and “Blech!” are too distracting.
Have you ever met a person who habitually holds conversations hostage, not allowing others to speak? They open with a meaningless syllable, such as “Aaahhh…” and continue droning on that syllable while they gather their thoughts.
These are ‘thinking syllables.’ This is what is known as a ‘verbal tic’ and can be such an ingrained habit that the speaker is unaware of it. The guilty party may suffer hurt feelings if you try to hurry them along.
These are difficult speech behaviors to convey. They are supremely annoying in real life and are excruciating to read in a book. Therefore, we don’t want to read them in a story or novel. I recommend you don’t begin your sentences with thinking syllables like “Ahh…” or “Hmmm….”
As a reader, I’ve come to feel your best bet when dealing with verbal tics is to give a brief instance of their speech pattern. After that, if it is important, occasionally mention the way their habits annoy other characters.
I don’t enjoy reading heavy accents and am leaning away from writing them into my dialogue.
More and more, I try to limit the use of misspellings, bad grammar, and vulgar accents, especially when trying to point out that the character is uneducated or from a rural background.
It’s far too easy to go over the top, and turn the character into a parody, a cartoon of a person, instead of someone who feels real.
Use only a few well-chosen words to convey the idea of the accent. Use those words in a consistent manner for that character in such a way that it isn’t incomprehensible.
I have discussed conversations at length before, so I won’t bore you with repeating myself. Instead, I will list the peeves I have with the work of even the most famous authors:
- The exposition dump: “Bob, remember how I told you (blah blah blah)?”
- Repetitively naming the characters being spoken to: “Bob, remember how I told you (blah blah blah)?”
- Bizarre speech tags such as ejaculated or spewed.
- Internal dialogues that are a wall of italics going on forever.
- Spelling out accents to the point they are visually incomprehensible. “Oive got a luverly bunch uv coconuts…”
- Leading off with verbal tics. “Aahhh…ummm…”
- Never resort to writing foreign languages by using Google Translate (or any other translation app). A single word used consistently here and there to convey the sense of foreignness is one thing, but in general, if you don’t speak the language, don’t write it.
The word-pond of Story is like a supermassive black hole.
Conversations, both spoken and internal, light up and illuminate the individual corners of the story, bringing the immensity of the overall story arc down to a personal level.
Good conversations and mental dialogues bring characters to life and turn them into our closest friends. The laws of grammar sometimes break down on the quantum level when our friends are speaking naturally.