Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Dialogue - Write it Right

Dialogue — Write it Right

Be it to increase pace, slow pace, or impart information, dialogue construction need not baffle any writer. Perhaps it’s neither the dullness of studying punctuation nor the belief of its simplicity, but the focus on dialogue content that hinders fiction writers in nailing dialogue punctuation. While rules and conventions can be described as legion, budding authors need to understand and apply the following basic principles to create a favorable impression with any serious reader or acquisitions editor.

Dialogue can either be internal to the point of view (POV) character or external. Thoughts are internal dialogue. Spoken words, no matter how uttered, classified as external. A common convention for indicating exact-word internal dialogue is to put the words in italic. Example: Claris stepped back. Stupid horse. She tossed the saddle onto the blanket.

The italics used in the example to indicate internal dialogue are replaced by quotation marks to show the exact words a person or character vocalizes externally. Words enclosed in quotation marks indicate the exact words and order in which spoken. This is referred to as a direct quotation. Example of direct quotation: “The house on the corner is where I grew up,” Jane said.

The same information can be conveyed via an indirect quotation. Example of an indirect quotation: Jane said she grew up in the house on the corner. No quotation marks or italics are used for what Jane said. Her exact words aren’t being quoted. However, the information content of these two examples is identical. The quotation marks are a signal to the reader that the speaker is being quoted verbatim. The italics used for “Stupid horse.” in the internal dialogue example above also indicate those are the exact words thought, but not uttered. For character internal dialogue that doesn’t impart the exact words the author may write: “Claris thought the horse acted stupid.”

Be on guard for the incorrect use of quotation marks with indirect quotation.

Correct indirect quotation:  John said he didn’t wanna go.

Incorrect indirect quotation: John said, “he didn’t wanna go.”

Identifying the speaker is done with what is called an attribution tag. The word “said” is, and should remain, the workhorse. Most reader minds skip over the word making it almost invisible. That is good, really. For questions, the word “asked” will replace “said.” While writers may unnecessarily search for attribution tags to substitute for “said,” there are several that express the how or the sound of what the character says. Example: muttered, whispered, uttered, etc. A waiting trap is to use a word that has everything to do with an action and nothing to do with speaking a sentence. Example: “Wow,” John smiled. “Smiled” is an action, not a way language is spoken. Actions are not to be used as attribution tags. (A second problem with a word like “smile” is that a character speaking can’t “see” a smile unless utilizing the cliché of gazing into a mirror.) Coughing and nodding used as attribution tags duplicate the same mistake as when smile is inappropriately relied upon. However, they, unlike smile, are physical actions a POV character does not have to see to understand that they’re happening.

Since the POV character is the main speaker in most fiction, an author can often dispense with attribution tags altogether by utilizing the convention that each time a character speaks he or she begins a new paragraph. Thus, once identified in a two-person conversation, the paragraphs keep track of who’s speaking. To help the reader and give context to the dialogue, little bits of action can be included, especially as relates to the POV character. The following example illustrates.

“Where did you say you lived?” John asked.

“The house on the corner is where I grew up,” Jane said.

John gazed past the white picket fence. “Wow!”

“Didn’t think so then.”


“Always had to do chores after school.” John glanced at the horizon; eyes refocused on the fence as he waited for Jane to quit fiddling with her knapsack and continue. “Loved music. Mother forbid playing the piano until house swept, dusted or...”

John’s thoughts of a troubled childhood with vaguely linked foster homes snaked through his brain and interrupted his retention of Jane’s description of unending chores. He would’ve enjoyed having his own room and the security that came from living under the same roof for more than a year at a time. (End of example.)

The above example with its short dialogue bursts may not always serve the author’s purpose. While short, crisp, one-line statements speed up the reader, a longer dialogue insertion may be needed to match reality and/or satisfy the author’s need to slow the pace without going into narrative. Lurking in the background is the “comma splice.” This is a term used when two independent clauses are linked with a comma. Authors remember the independent clause. It’s a grammatical unit containing a subject and a verb and could stand alone as a sentence.

In dialogue it may appear thusly: “The way the forwards have been playing, the team will be lucky to advance into the playoff’s second round,” the announcer said, “I’m fearful the goalie will bolt for greener pastures next season.” The comma after the word “said” must be replaced by a period.

Where you place the attribution tag, is always a consideration. There are three locations.

In front: Jane said, “I wanna go now. Not later.” Generally, this is the weakest location. Although, when a speaker is interrupted by environmental action and then continues, it may be clearer to say: Jane continued, “I wanna go now. Not later.”

In the middle:  “I wanna go now,” Jane said. “Not later.”

At the end: “I wanna go now. Not later,” Jane said. While the attribution tag is strongest at the end of a sentence, where there are several sentences the tag is usually best after the first sentence. “I wanna go now,” Jane said. “Not later. The sun gets so hot in the afternoon. I’ll burn something fierce.”

Reading the examples aloud should give a sense of the different rhythms. Placing the attribution tag in the middle tends to give a slight pause. If the author wishes to indicate a pause, here’s a way he or she could rewrite the middle example: “I wanna go now.” Jane paused. “Not later.” Remember, the following would be incorrect:  “I wanna go now,” Jane paused, “not later.”

In addition, please note that if you’re quoting more than one sentence the quotation marks go at the beginning and at the end when the speaker finishes. If the same speaker goes on for more than one paragraph, quotation marks are at the beginning of each paragraph and then closing quotation marks at the end of the concluding paragraph when the speaker finishes.

While the focus has been on quotation marks, other punctuation can show the speaker’s physical action or that of another character. Ellipses show that the words of a speaker trail off. Example: Jane pushed back from the table. “I wanna go...” Use a dash to show that a speaker is interrupted. Example:

Jane pushed back from the table. “I wanna go—”

“Not so fast, sis,” Alice said. “It’s your turn to do dishes.”

This last dialogue example also demonstrates that when a character-speaker directly addresses another by given name or nickname, be it Jane, Sis, Mr. Jones, Honey, the direct address is set off by commas front and back.

Also note that every comma, period, ellipsis and dash is inside the quotation marks. This is the standardized American convention and the list also includes question marks and exclamation points. Colons and semicolons will most often appear outside quotation marks. Differing conventions apply in British English and some writers eschew quotation marks altogether in favor of dashes, colons or whatever. No opinion is expressed. All authors need, however, to be aware of the maxim that not one rule or convention governs the world.   

Author Donan Berg has published four novels, A Body To Bones, The Bones Dance Foxtrot, Baby Bones, Abbey Burning Love and a collection of short stories, Bubbling Conflict and Other Stories. Contact him through http://www.abodytobones.com/ or http://www.dotdonbooks.com/ .  


No comments:

Post a Comment