Tag Archives: writing conversations

About Dialogue #amwriting #nanowrimo

We who write must be able to visualize and describe conversations. We must do it in such a way that the reader forgets they’re reading a book and becomes engrossed in the discussion.

However, we don’t want to be completely accurate. How many people have mannerisms that impede their speech, uhhhhmming and aaahhhhing their way through each thought? And yet others may have a lisp or stutter that makes you have to listen more closely to them. These are normal parts of our lives but are things we don’t include in our written descriptions of conversations.

So how do we get the conversation down so the reader will enjoy it?

First of all, there are certain fundamental rules of the road that readers will expect authors to be educated in. When authors don’t obey these rules, readers put the book down, unfinished. The rules are clearly listed in the Chicago Manual of Style but can also be found in the Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation by Bryan A. Garner. These are two books authors should own and refer back to whenever they have questions about grammar.

On a side note, I was lurking in a writers’ forum when a new member boldly commented, “Why are you so concerned about this? Who the hell cares about grammar? We write what we want and to hell with rules.”

Wisely, I stayed out of that poo-storm. It is good for us to remember that “grammar-nazis” are not the only people who care about sentence construction and the mechanics of good writing.

Readers care. Words have intersections, and punctuation acts as a traffic signal, preventing jam-ups and wrecks. Authors who care take the time to learn a few basic rules, things that signal stop, go, slow down, and “someone is talking.”

Much of what follows has been written here before. So, if you have already seen this, thank you for stopping by!

Here are the rules of how to write readable dialogue:

  1. Always begin what is actually spoken (dialogue) with a capitalized word, no matter where in the sentence it begins.
  • Gemma glanced over her shoulder and said, “I’m sorry. I can’t go with you.” 

However, interrupted dialogue, when it resumes, is not capped, although the rules of punctuation and quotation marks still apply.

  • “I’m sorry to tell you,” said Gemma, “but I can’t go with you.”
  1. Direct dialogue is someone speaking to you or someone else and requires quotation marks.
  • “I’m sorry. I can’t go with you,” said Gemma.

I’m a US author, so I used double quotes, also called closed quotes. The UK usage is different and often uses apostrophes, or what they call inverted commas.

Regardless of whether you are a UK or US author, be consistent and make sure ALL punctuation goes inside the quote marks.

Yes, I did say All punctuation.

  1. How does one set off a quote from someone else within dialogue?

Set it apart with single quotes (apostrophes, inverted commas) and keep it inside the closed quotes. You can do this in two ways:

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

Note that in the second sentence 3 apostrophes are placed after the period (full stop): 1 apostrophe and 1 double (closed) quote mark. This is in keeping with the rule that all punctuation in dialogue goes inside the quotation marks.

  1. Indirect dialogue is a recapping of dialogue that someone previously spoke.
  • When asked, Jason said Gemma couldn’t go.

Note there are no quotes used in indirect dialogue. Also, in the above sentence, the word that is implied between said and Gemma.

Dialogue tags, or attributions (said, replied) can come before the dialogue, especially if you want the dialogue tag to be noticed. To make them less noticeable put them in the middle or at the end of sentences. In my own work, I want the dialogue and not the attribution to stand out. However, when more than two people are involved in a conversation, I move the dialogue tags further to the front, so the reader isn’t left wondering who is speaking.

  1. You can skip using dialogue tags altogether for a back-and-forth or two, but
  • not if there are more than two speakers in the scene, and
  • not for more than a few exchanges.

Readers want to be able to track who is saying what.

Sometimes it’s okay to miss a few beats. Beats are what screen-writers call the little bits of physical action that is inserted into dialogue. Small actions showing the mood of a character are often best placed where there is a natural break in the dialogue, as they allow the reader to experience the same pause as the characters. They’re an effective tool and are essential to good dialogue, but don’t overdo it.

If your characters are shifting in their chair, gazing into the distance, or opening their laptops between every second line of conversation, the scene becomes about the action and not the dialogue, and the impact is diluted or lost entirely.

When we add gestures and actions to the conversation, we want them to be meaningful.  Otherwise, just use a simple dialogue tag, like said, or replied.

Please don’t get rid of attributions entirely because the verbal exchanges become confusing and the action takes over, making the dialogue fade into the background noise of foot shuffling and paper rattling.

I’ve mentioned before that I prefer simple attributions such as said, replied, and answered because they are not as likely to stop the reader’s eye. Some things to consider:

  1. People don’t
  • snort,
  • smirk,
  • smile,
  • or frown dialogue as it is physically impossible.

They can say it with a smile, a frown, a smirk, or a snort, but while facial expressions convey emotion, they do not speak. Simple attributions in combination with lean, descriptive narrative are all you need.

  • “Oh, that looks nice.” Jenny snorted. “I wouldn’t be caught dead in it.”

Sometimes we have two ideas that we think are one, and we connect them with commas. But closer examination shows they are not.

  • “Hello, sir, we bathed your dog,” she said.

The above dialogue contains a run-on sentence, despite its shortness. We may actually speak it in this fashion, words run together, but for a reader, punctuation clarifies ideas.

The dialogue contains two separate ideas. “Hello, sir,” is an acknowledgment and a greeting. “We bathed your dog,” indicates an action was taken regarding his dog. It should be:

  • “Hello, sir. We bathed your dog,” she said.
  • “Hello sir,” she said. “We bathed your dog.”

To wind this up, authors can take some style and voice liberties with dialogue but must use common sense. Adhering to the accepted standard rules of punctuation makes your work readable by anyone who speaks or reads English.


Credits and Attributions:

Portions of this post have previously appeared here on Life in the Realm of Fantasy as The Mechanics of Writing Dialogue, posted December 14, 2016

Traffic Light, © Free Clip Art Now https://www.freeclipartnow.com/transportation/traffic-lights/

Researched Source: Section 13.13, Quotations and Punctuation, page 719: The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th Edition, University of Chicago Press, © 2017

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#amwritng: The #NanoNovel: the mechanics of writing dialogue

jack-kerouac-quote-memeEveryone has read books that inspire them to become writers. But many authors just starting out don’t know how to write the kind of book they envision.

Consider writing conversations: it’s just people talking, right? No big deal.

Wrong. Many authors just starting out don’t know where the periods (full stops) and commas go, inside or outside the quotation marks. They are inconsistent where they put them throughout the manuscript because they are unsure of what way is right.

They send me things with the punctuation inside the quotation marks sometimes, outside sometimes, and with quote marks missing half the time. I always decline those editing jobs, as it would take a year of my time to get that work into shape. But I do tell them why I couldn’t accept it, and how to correct it so an editor could work with them.

Wrong: “dorothy flew over the rainbow in a house”. Said Toto. I went with her”.

Right: “Dorothy flew over the rainbow in a house,” said Toto. “I went with her.”

1. Always begin what is actually spoken (dialogue) with a capitalized word, no matter where in the sentence it begins.

  • Mary glanced over her shoulder and said, “I’m sorry. I can’t go with you.” 

However, interrupted dialogue, when it resumes, is not capped, although the rules of punctuation and quotation marks still apply.

  • “I’m sorry to tell you,” said Mary, “but I can’t go with you.”

2. Direct dialogue is someone speaking to you or someone else and requires quotation marks.

  • I’m sorry. I can’t go with you,” said Mary.

I’m a US author, so I used double quotes, also called closed quotes. The UK usage is different and often uses apostrophes, or what they call inverted commas.

Regardless of whether you are a UK or US author, be consistent and make sure ALL punctuation goes inside the quote marks.

Yes, I did say All punctuation.

3. How does one set off a quote from someone else within dialogue?

Set it apart with single quotes (apostrophes, inverted commas) and keep it inside the closed quotes. You can do this two ways:

George said, “When I asked her, Mary replied ‘I can’t go.’ But I’m sure she was lying.”

George said, “When I asked, Mary replied ‘I can’t go.'”

Note that in the second sentence 3 apostrophes are placed after the period (full stop): 1 apostrophe and 1 double (closed) quote mark. This is in keeping with the rule that all punctuation in dialogue goes inside the quotation marks.

4. Indirect dialogue is a recapping of dialogue that someone previously spoke.

  • When asked, George said Mary couldn’t go.

Note there are no quotes used in indirect dialogue. Also in the above sentence, the word that is implied between said and Mary.

Dialogue tags, or attributions (said, replied) can come before the dialogue, especially if you want the dialogue tag to be noticed. To make them less noticeable put them in the middle or at the end of sentences. In my own work, I want the dialogue and not the attribution to stand out. However, when more than two people are involved in a conversation, I move the dialogue tags further to the front, so the reader isn’t left wondering who is speaking.

5. You can skip using dialogue tags altogether for a back-and-forth or two, but

  • not if there are more than two speakers in the scene, and
  • not for more than a few exchanges.

Readers want to be able to track who is saying what.

Sometimes it’s okay to miss a few beats. Beats are what screen-writers call the little bits of physical action that is inserted into dialogue. Small actions showing the mood of a character are often best placed where there is a natural break in the dialogue, as they allow the reader to experience the same pause as the characters. They’re an effective tool and are essential to good dialogue, but don’t overdo it. If your characters are fluttering their eyelashes, gazing into the distance or opening their laptops between every second line of conversation, the scene becomes about the action and not the dialogue, and the impact is diluted or lost entirely.

This means that when we add gestures and actions to the conversation we want it to be meaningful,.  Otherwise, just use a simple dialogue tag, like said, or replied.

Please don’t make the mistake of getting rid of attributions entirely because the verbal exchanges become confusing and the action takes over, making the dialogue fade into the background noise of foot shuffling and paper rattling.

I’ve mentioned before that I prefer simple attributions such as said, replied, and answered because they are not as likely to stop the reader’s eye. Some things to consider:

6. People don’t

  • snort,
  • smirk,
  • smile,
  • or frown dialogue as it is physically impossible.

They can say it with a smile, but the smile is a facial expression and does not speak.

Avoid verbal tics like “hmmm…” and “ahhh…” as they just take up space and add fluff to your narrative. When people in real life preface all of their sentences with drawn-out ahs and hmms it can be aggravating to listen to them. Consider how irritating it would be to read it.

writing_conventions_meme_lirf20167. Sometimes we have two ideas in a sentence that we think are one, and we connect them with commas.  But closer examination shows they are not.

  • “Hello, sir, we bathed your dog,” she said.

The above dialogue contains a run-on sentence, despite its shortness. We may actually speak it in this fashion, words run together, but for a reader, punctuation clarifies ideas.

The dialogue contains two separate ideas. “Hello, sir,” is an acknowledgment and a greeting. “We bathed your dog,” indicates an action was taken regarding his dog. It should be:

  • “Hello, sir. We bathed your dog,” she said.
  • “Hello sir,” she said. “We bathed your dog.”

We can take some style and voice liberties with dialogue, and indeed, we should, but adhering to the accepted standard rules of punctuation makes your work readable by anyone who speaks or reads English.


Researched Source:

Section six, Punctuation, pages 306-310: The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition, University of Chicago Press, © 2010

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#amwriting: bloated conversations are bad for business

SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL AUTHORSBeing an author is a business. It is a retail business, and you must look at it from that point of view, even if your work isn’t selling like hotcakes at the local diner. Big, fat books that are full of bloated exposition and conversations to nowhere are more expensive to publish and are unlikely to sell once the prospective reader has leafed through them.

Once you have a book published, you have a business, whether you are an Indie or traditionally published, and you must think about it from that angle. Wouldn’t you like to see some money from your work? Your best chance of this is at trade shows and book signing events. However,

  • In the real world, authors must pay for each book that is stocked on their table.

“This won’t apply to me,” you say.  “I’m going the traditional route. Once I sell my book to that Big Publisher in the Sky, he will provide me with all the copies of my books that I will ever need when I do signings, at no cost to me.”

Not so, my deluded friend.

A traditional publisher who is really excited about your book might arrange for you to have a table at a convention and will advance you copies of the books for you to sell and sign, but the cost of those books will come out of your earned royalties. You will see no money from your publisher until your book has out-earned all the advances they have paid you. So, just like an Indie, you pay for the books for your table at trade shows, conventions, and at most book-signings. The fact is, many traditionally published authors never out-earn their advances. Retail sales at shows are where they stand the most chance of bringing home money from book sales.

Consider how many copies of each book you can afford to take to the book signing event. You must weigh this cost against what you think the demand will be. Books that cost YOU more than $5.99 each are not a good thing for an Indie, because you must pony-up the cash at the time you order them. If you buy too many and they don’t sell, you have a lot of cash tied up in stock-on-hand that is earning you nothing.

For an indie who writes epic fantasy, it’s most cost-effective to keep your work to between 90,000 and 120,000 words if you intend to print through CreateSpace, which prints my paper books. If you have written a 300,000-word epic fantasy, consider dividing it into three volumes of 100,000 words each. Otherwise, you will be required to charge $17.99 to $20.00 per book just to make a minimal profit through Amazon.

How do we keep this cost down? We get a grip on the fluff that has worked its way into our work, and trust me, I didn’t understand this when I first began writing full time.

In the first draft, we have created a large amount of backstory. This is because we needed it to get a grip on the characters, their world, and the situation in order to write it. This is work the reader does not need to know the minuscule details of. To avoid info dumps and yet deploy the background as it is needed, we write conversations.

We need to exercise restraint. In the second draft, we decide what is crucial to the advancement of the plot and what could be done without. In recent years, I have begun cutting entire chapters that, when I looked at them realistically, were only background. In some cases, it was my favorite work, but when looked at with an independent eye, it didn’t do anything but stall the forward momentum of my book.

So how do we convey a sense of naturalness and avoid the pitfalls of the dreaded info dump and stilted dialogue? First, we must consider how the conversation fits into the arc of the scene.

The Arc of the Conversation

It begins, rises to a peak, and ebbs, an integral part of the scene, propelling the story forward to the launching point for the next scene. A good conversation is about something and builds toward something. J.R.R. Tolkien said, “Dialogue has a premise or premises and moves toward a conclusion of some sort. If nothing comes of it, the dialogue is a waste of the reader’s time.”

First, we must identify what must be conveyed in our conversation.

  1. Who needs to know what?
  2. Why must they know it?
  3. How many paragraphs do you intend to devote to it?

My rule of thumb is, keep the conversations short and intersperse them with scenes of actions that advance the plot. Think like a screenwriter–visualize the conversation as if you are viewing it on a stage. Does the thought of two heads yammering about the weather for half an hour really interest you? No. Show the weather and spend your conversations on the important things. Walls of conversation don’t keep the action moving and will lose readers.

Author James Scott Bell says dialogue has five functions:

  1. To reveal story information
  2. To reveal character
  3. To set the tone
  4. To set the scene
  5. To reveal theme

So now that we know what must be conveyed and why, we arrive in the minefield of the manuscript:

  • Delivering the backstory.

CAUTION INFO DUMP ZONE AHEADDon’t give your characters long paragraphs with lines and lines and lines of uninterrupted dialogue. Those can become info dumps laced with useless fluff and are sometimes seen as a wall of words by the reader.

When the dialogue is trying to tell the reader too much, characters end up saying a lot of unnatural and awkward things. Characters go back and forth explaining precisely what they are feeling or thinking, and it doesn’t seem remotely real.

  • Background information must be deployed on a “need to know” basis. If it is not important at that moment, the reader does not need to know it.
  • The only time exposition works is when both the reader and the character being spoken to do not know the information being artfully dumped.

When reading, even dedicated readers will skip over large, unbroken blocks of words. Elmore Leonard famously said, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

I feel this goes double for dialogue.

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