Tag Archives: writing dialogue

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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Layers of a Scene #amwriting

I try to approach writing each dialogue scene as it would be portrayed in a movie. I think of each conversation as an event that must advance the story, so dialogue must do at least one (if not all) of these things:

  1. Offer information the characters are only now learning.
  2. Show the state of mind the characters are experiencing.
  3. Show the relationship of the characters to each other.
  4. Show the relationship of the characters to their world.

In the first stage of the rough draft, with those goals in mind, I sit down and picture the characters and their relationship. Then, I write just the dialogue for several back-and-forth exchanges. No speech tags, just the exchange. I do this in short bursts, to get the basic words down. It’s a two stage process—the scenery and background get filled in after the dialogue has been written.

“What are you doing?”

“Oh, just drawing.”

“Drawing what?”

“You’ll laugh or find a reason to mock me for it.”

Once I know what they are talking about and have the rudimentary dialogue straight, I add in the scenery and attributions, and the dialogue grows with each layer. This is because the scene has become sharper in my mind and I know more of the mental state my characters are in.

The next morning, when his stepmother came down for coffee, John was once again working on something in his notebook. He stood, gathering his pens.

“What are you doing?” Ann’s clipped tones cut the silence.

“Oh, just drawing.” The peace he’d sought had gone, earlier than he hoped.

“Drawing what?”

John’s normally open features were closed, inscrutable. “You’ll laugh or find a reason to mock me for it.” Closing his sketchbook, he attempted to leave but stopped when she put her hand on his shoulder.

“Show me. Now.” When Ann repeated her demand, he reluctantly opened the book. Page after page was covered in stylized dragons, leafy vines, and runes. “Why do you waste your time with this crap? You could be brilliant, but no! People want real art, not this drivel.”

“This is how I earn my living.”

Ann poured herself a cup of coffee, pausing only to sneer. “You don’t have a pot to—”

“Stop.” John reclaimed the sketchbook. “Coming back here was a mistake. I did it because Dad asked me to, and because it’s Christmas.” He crossed toward the dining room. “Enjoy your breakfast.” The kitchen door closed behind him, cutting off his stepmother’s rant.

We know the characters’ relationship to each other, and what their place in this environment is. The layers that form this scene are:

  1. Action: She comes down for coffee. He holds a notebook, gathers pens, and stands.
  2. Dialogue: shows long-simmering resentment between the two players and gives us a time reference—it’s Christmas.
  3. Environment: a kitchen, closed off from the rest of the house. In this story, the woman’s closed off kitchen is symbolic of her closed off personality. The place that is the heart of a home is closed off. She is at odds with her own son, as well as her stepchildren.

We work with layers to create each scene. With these layers, we show the reader everything they need to know about that moment in time.

In many ways, each scene is a story-within-a-story, with a beginning, middle, and end. Every scene should have an arc, leading us to the next scene. We link the mini-stories together to form the larger story, pushing the characters to the final confrontation that ends the novel.

By beginning with the dialogue in each scene, I can get the words down and then concentrate on visualizing the setting where the conversation takes place. Over the course of a book, conversations take place in different settings, so readers are eventually shown the entire world these characters live in. They will see that world without our having to dump a floor-plan or itinerary on the reader. Remember our basic conversation?

“What are you doing?”

“Oh, just drawing.”

“Drawing what?”

“You’ll laugh or find a reason to mock me for it.”

Let’s put that dialogue and the notebook into a fantasy setting and change how the characters are related to each other:

At the end of her watch the next morning, Ann warmed the flatbread from the day before and filled it with goat cheese for breakfast. Traveling alone with John was different without the others, more difficult in ways she didn’t want to acknowledge. 

Clearly surprised at waking to a hot meal, John thanked her but remained on his side of the fire. He opened his journal and made an entry, then with his breakfast eaten, he began drawing something in his sketch book.

This time she decided to see what was so absorbing. “What are you doing?”

“Oh, just drawing.”

“Drawing what?” Ann couldn’t read his expression, and normally she could.

“You’ll laugh or find a reason to mock me for it.” Closing his sketchbook, John attempted to rise but stopped when she put her hand on his shoulder.

“Show me,” she commanded. “I promise I won’t mock you. I’m just curious.”

Now the look in his eyes confused her. It was guarded yet had the same quality he did after praying. Clearly against his better judgement, he opened his notebook.

Page after page was covered with portraits of all the members of their tribe, including her, all looking as full of life as if they could step off the page. Every messenger they had ever been sent was there, and people she didn’t know whom he must have met on his travels. She nearly wept on seeing the many portraits of her brother, handsome and laughing.

“These… they’re amazing. You’ve detailed our life for the last three years. And David… it’s the way I want to remember him. Thank you.”

John seemed confused by her approval. His gaze was far away when he answered. “I dream all night long, and then I have to draw. I don’t know why.”

We began with the same words and a notebook, and used the same names. But with different relationships, we ended up with different characters. They have a different quest, and their story is written for a different genre. However, the layers in this fantasy do the same work as in the contemporary piece. The layers that form this scene are:

Action: Ann prepares breakfast, something John is surprised to find her doing. He opens a notebook.

Dialogue: shows a wary interaction between two people who know each other well, and who may be entering a different stage in their relationship.

Environment: a campsite, an open fire. It is set in the wide outdoors, yet it is intimate.

The words are the same, the notebook is there, but the direction the conversation takes is different because the story is different.

By beginning with the conversation and envisioning it as if it were a scene in a movie, I can flesh it out and show everything the reader needs to hang their imagination on. Readers are smart and don’t want to be told what to think. The reader’s mind will supply the details of a kitchen or a campsite, depending on the clues I give.

How will you add the layers to your conversations? The possibilities are endless.

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