Sunday, May 10, 2009

Good dialogue is essential to a great work of fiction. With it, an author can reveal to the reader who the characters are without having to tell them. We can give characters unique ways of talking, certain phrases they like to repeat and have the characters interacting with one another. Like the moonstone, dialogue should be smooth and should reveal important information that furthers the plot.

From the very beginning of my writing career, I have had little trouble in the area of dialogue. I hear the characters in my head and write their dialogue just as they talk. It comes so naturally to me that I had to analyze some of my work to find out how I actually do it that makes it flow and seem real.

Despite having read dialogue over and over again in books, what I didn’t have down naturally was the punctuation. Enough of the format was imprinted into my mind that I could remember that the quotes go outside the end punctuation, but my end punctuation and when to capitalize and when to not capitalize tags tripped me up. A speech tag is the part before or after the words spoken, such as he said or she said.

When I realized that I had been doing something wrong in my dialogue punctuation, I searched the internet and found a lot of drawn out and confusing web pages about it. I did find one site that explained the punctuation so simply, with easy examples, that I was able to get it and within two days, I had wiped out all my habitual mistakes. Now, when I am editing for new authors, I send them this same link: Dialogue Punctuation Made Simple.

There are a few things to remember when writing dialogue. There must be a new paragraph each time another character speaks. When three or more people are in a scene, use speech tags or action to indicate who is speaking. When having a long scene with dialogue, mix up where speech tags are and have action tags that give the reader a visual of where the speakers are and what they are doing so you can avoid the talking head syndrome.

Example of dialogue

Four-year-old Jack held the delicate sand dollar up to show his older sister. “Is this candy?”

“Candy?” asked Brooke as she took it from him. “No, it’s a sand dollar.”

“Oh,” Jack said, “is it a vegetable?”

“No, it’s not a vegetable.”

Brooke sat down on her beach towel and placed the sand dollar on her knee. Jack plopped down in front of her and ran his fingers through the warm sand.

“Is it a fruit?”

“No. It’s not food. This is the skeleton of a dead animal.” Jack’s little gasp and wide eyes made Brooke giggle. “Why did you want to know?”

Jack sighed and in a small, sad voice said, “Because I licked it.”


Some people find it helpful to write out only the words spoken in a scene of dialogue and add in the tags and actions later. The most important thing is to play around with dialogue until you feel comfortable writing it and it is believable speech. When in doubt, read the scene out loud.
If you have some tips or suggestions about dialogue, a question or a comment about this article, I’d love to hear from you.


Jamie said...

I love writing dialogue - it comes more naturally to me too. My writing normally has a lot of dialogue, because that's what I'm good at.

Sadly, it appears to be a trade off. I have to work at description and the scenes between the dialogue.

Thanks for the link - it helped me clear up a few of my own punctuation mistakes. :-)

Patricia S. said...

I'm glad the link helped you. :)

I, too, have to work harder on my prose/narration and making sure that scenes "jump" off the page and into the readers imagination.