Characterization part one – 7 rules for writing conversations plus 4 for extra credit

WritingCraftSeries_depth-through-conversationIn real life, we are drawn to certain people and get to know them better through conversations.

At first, they’re an unknown quantity. They become individuals to us once we’re introduced and we discover their speech habits, resonate with their sense of humor, and learn bits of their backstory.

On the opposite side of the coin, conversations can alert us to people we choose to avoid.

Elmore Leonard quote re dialogueGood conversations and mental dialogues bring written characters to life and turn them into people we want to know, our closest friends.

Here are seven rules for adding depth to our characters through their conversations.

One: Don’t indulge in the exposition dump: “Bob, remember how I told you (blah blah blah)?”

In real life, we might say this and not notice it. However, when we see it written, it becomes word padding, adding fluff to the narrative. This is a classic example of something we don’t need to know.

Two: Don’t repetitively name the characters being spoken to: “Bob, remember how I told you (blah blah blah)?”

The reader knows Dave is talking to Bob. If it’s only the two of them, no direction is necessary—they can just say what they need to with a few speech tags to keep the “who said what” straight. If there are three or more characters in the conversation, have Dave turn to Bob and then speak.

Three: Don’t use bizarre speech tags.

I don’t care for reading graphic and disgusting speech tags such as ejaculated. “Telling” words do our narratives no favors when used as speech tags. We are creative and can do better than that by showing a character’s shock, dismay, or joy as they are speaking. We intersperse actions with simple speech tags that don’t stop the reader’s eye.

Bob’s eyes widened, and he grabbed the letter. “You idiot.”

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.

Four: Please don’t indulge in internal dialogues (thoughts) that are a wall of italics going on forever.

William Falkner quote re dialogueInternal dialogues (rambling thoughts) are often a thinly disguised info dump in my first drafts. I seek those out in the second draft and either cut them to a line or two or eliminate them entirely. I try to avoid italics if possible, so this is how I write thoughts nowadays:

Dave fought down a wave of nausea, followed by a surge of anger so raw, it burned. The effort to stifle it took all he had. Brandon was at least ten years younger than her, barely old enough to legally drink beer.

Five: Don’t spell out accents to the point they are visually incomprehensible. “Oive got a luverly bunch uv coconuts….”

I refuse to review books I dislike. This is because some books I despise are beloved bestsellers, demonstrating that I don’t know everything. (What? Say it ain’t so!) As in all other things, it’s a matter of taste.

One of the many reasons I disliked “Where the Crawdads Sing” was how the accents were portrayed. They were shown in a demeaning way, in my opinion. I know that many readers didn’t see that as a problem; as I said, it is only my opinion.

gobbledegook detectedHowever, I have no problem understanding an accent and visualizing a character as foreign when the author consistently uses one or two well-known words that a non-native speaker might use, such as si, ja, or oui, in place of yes. Most English speakers recognize and know the meaning of these words when they see them. All it takes is a straightforward word to convey the proper foreign flavor.

Six: Please, please, please … pretty please … don’t make a habit of leading sentences off with drone words. “Aahhh … ummm …”

These are ‘thinking syllables.’ This is known as a ‘verbal tic’ and can be an ingrained habit that the speaker is unaware of.

Verbal tics are supremely annoying in real life and are excruciating to read when peppered throughout the narrative. Once in a while, a non-word like “Ah …” adds a moment for the character to show shock or another emotion in the narrative. But do go lightly with them.

You may have met someone who habitually opens every sentence with a meaningless syllable, such as “Aaaaaaaahh….” They continue droning while they gather their thoughts, holding the conversation hostage and not allowing the other person to speak.

The guilty party may suffer hurt feelings when you try to hurry them along.

Seven: Never use Google Translate (or any other translation app) to write foreign languages.

As mentioned in rule 5, a word or two 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.

good_conversations_LIRFmemeThe laws of grammar sometimes break down on the quantum level in conversations with our friends. This is also true of written exchanges.

Many new authors are confused about how to punctuate conversations. It’s not complicated, so here are four simple rules for punctuating discussions (offered for your extra credit):

Rule 1: Surround everything that is spoken with quotation marks. “I’m back,” he said.

In the US, we begin and end the dialogue with “double quotes.” These are also called closed quotes and all punctuation goes inside them. This is a universal, cast-iron rule that we must follow because readers expect to see them and become confused when you don’t set dialogue off this way.

Rule 2: When quoting someone else (as part of a conversation), you should set the quoted speech apart with single quotes (apostrophes, inverted commas) and keep it inside the closed quotes.

You can do this in two ways:

  • Dave said, “When I asked her, Jill replied, ‘I can’t go.’ But I’m sure she was lying.”
  • Dave said, “When I asked, Jill replied, ‘I can’t go.'”

In the second sentence, 3 apostrophes are placed after the period (full stop): One apostrophe and one double (closed) quote mark. This is in keeping with the rule that all punctuation in dialogue goes inside the quotation marks.

Indirect dialogue is a recapping of a conversation:

  • When asked, Dave said Jill told him she couldn’t go.

We don’t use quotes in indirect dialogue. Also, in the above sentence, “that” is implied between said and Jill.

comma or apostropheRule 3: Commas—Do not place a period between the closed quotes and the dialogue tag. Use a comma because when the speech tag follows the spoken words, they are one sentence consisting of clauses separated by a comma:  “I’m here,” he said.

  • When leading with a speech tag, the commas are placed after the tag and are not inside the quotation marks: He said, “I’m here.”
  • Dialogue split by the speech tag is all one sentence: “The flowers are lovely,” she said, “but they make my eyes water.” Note that the first word in the second half of the sentence is not capitalized.

Rule 4: When a speaker’s monologue must be broken into two paragraphs, lead off each with quotation marks but only put the closed quote at the end of the final paragraph. A wall of dialogue can be daunting in a story, but sometimes happens in essays and when quoting speeches.

Characterization definitionConversations, 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.

In good dialogue, readers are given all the information they need and are shown the characters’ motives and deepest desires.

They illustrate our heroes and villains as the people we imagine them to be—without making them cartoonish.


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25 responses to “Characterization part one – 7 rules for writing conversations plus 4 for extra credit

  1. I always thought writing believable dialogue was difficult and I was correct. My characters tend to speak in shorter lines, which I feel is more natural, rather than having one character speak paragraphs of a single thought, which I know is one way to convey the story’s information, but I do find it unbelievable it it goes on too long.

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  2. Oh! Lol You forbid exactly what I like to use to fill the pages. Thanks for the advice, Connie! Lesson learned, and i hopefully will never forget it. Best wishes, Michael

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  3. Judy

    My writing includes a lot of dialogue and it was reassuring to see that I follow MOST of these rules MOST of the time! Writers would be wise to copy this and keep it for reference!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. An excellent post, Connie, making the writing of dialogue clear.

    You say not to start with Aahhh. I would add another one to I find even more irritating in people’s speech. That is, ‘so’. People are increasingly using this little word to begin sentences.
    The Cambridge dictionary says it means
    very, extremely, or to such a degree.

    used before a noun or before “not” to emphasize what is being said: Don’t wear that – it’s so last year.

    used at the end of a sentence to mean to a very great degree:
    Is that why you hate him so?
    (Really means ‘so much’, but ‘much has been omitted. I don’t hear this use very much now.)

    I frequently hear someone ask a question, e.g. why did you wear that dress? Answer. So, I wore it…
    Doesn’t make sense.

    But all your points are pertinent.
    I once did a beta read of a book of short stories and the writer put the comma after the quotes every time. I pointed this out to him and he replied, ‘That’s how I do it and I’m not going to change.’
    Needless to say, I’ve not read anything else by him. Pity, as his stories were good.
    I would advise every newbie writer to abide by the rules of grammar. You won’t lose readers by doing so, but you might (and probably will) lose them by poor grammar and punctuation.
    However, if a character speaks in a less than perfect way, that’s alright, of course.

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    • Hello V! I confess – leading off with the word “so” is a habit of mine in the first draft and creeps into my second drafts. My editor catches many instances of that I miss.

      Worse, because “so” is a personal habit of mine, it shows up in my blogposts. My self-imposed schedule is tight, which means I write the on Sunday, self-edit them, and schedule them. No one sees my posts until they go live, and I will find bloopers only after they’ve been up for a day or two.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m not so sure if I agree with you on #7. Writing what the person begins to say in that character’s language but, then, switch to the language you write in gives detail to whom that character is. For instance, this was used in the movie “Red October”.

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  6. I really liked the article and agree with everything in it. I do tend to use Ahh’s and ooh’s at the start of sentences (though I try to keep them to a minimum) simply because that is the way people speak here. “Ah, you would think so” is commonplace here whereas if I were to start with “One, would imagine so” you would imagine the person speaking upper-class.
    Imagine the gritty detective drama, the lout, nicked.
    “Excuse me, Mr. Police officer, sir, but these Bonds with which you have restrained my hands do chafe a mite”. Said Cosh (Knuckles) Briggs.
    “I am so sorry sir, but sir you are a cutpurse and vagabond, I will have you mend your wicked ways or up before the good Kings magistrate you will be”.
    “Now kindly quieten your good self, whilst we indulge our weary ears with a little Bach on route to the constabulary”. chief Inspector Nick De Bas’tard retorted.
    “I thank you for your acquiescence”

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  7. Johanna Flynn

    I always get something useful reading your blog. Thanks for this one!

    Liked by 1 person