Recently, I’ve seen a lot discussions about the various elements of a story. Because of some of the questions, and yes, some of the replies, I decided to put together a new Writer Wednesday Series. Each week, I’ll take a look at some aspect of one of the story building blocks.
Basically, it’ll be the kind of stuff I searched for when I came back to writing fiction seriously, after a couple of decades just dabbling. I needed a refresher of the techniques and rules I’d learned long ago, as well as all the skills I still needed. So, I’m going to begin each element with just the broad strokes, then tighten the focus.
Some if it will be very basic stuff for some of you, but it might clear things up for others. If we don’t have an understanding of the very basic rules and techniques, the more advanced skills won’t do us a lot of good. And rest assured, once I’ve covered that basic stuff, I’ll start on more advanced things.
Dialog, The Rules:
The art of writing dialog, or conversation between two or more people, is, for some writers, one of the most difficult parts of writing fiction to grasp. The goals are to make it sound real, the way actual people talk, keep it interesting to the reader, and make it understandable. If we don’t follow some standard formatting and punctuation, the reader will have a hard time following the dialog. Readers don’t like to work to be entertained, so if they can’t understand what we’re writing, most of them will toss it across the room. Or at least, click away. Since we want them to keep reading, and to enjoy it so much they tell their friends, we better keep the writing understandable.
Formatting and punctuation for grammar is pretty straight forward, once you know the rules. Now, if you’re one of those writers, who think the rules don’t apply to you because your story is so amazing, the reader will carry it home on stone tablets if need be… Well, just be aware, very few readers would go that far for the greatest works of fiction in the world, let alone your story. Besides, if you don’t know and understand the rules, how can you possibly break them consistently and effectively?
Formatting and Punctuation
So here we go, some of the basics of formatting and punctuating dialog.
- The paragraph changes every time the speaker does.
“How are you doing?” John asked. The conversation opens.
“Busy lately. You?” Mary said, tying her shoe. The speaker changes, so we have a new paragraph.
“Yeah. Work’s been a madhouse.” John paid for his coffee. Another new paragraph, since the speaker has changed again. If we added a 3rd person here after John, we would start a new paragraph.
- Every word spoken aloud is enclosed in quotations.
“How are you doing?” John asked. If John said something further, we would open a new quotation for those words, and close it when he stopped. If, instead of saying something else, he does something else, like walking on down the street, we would write that without quotations.
- Punctuation that goes with the words being spoken aloud is inside the quotations.
“How are you doing?” John asked. Notice the question mark after doing is inside the quotes. If an exclamation were warranted, it would be inside as well.
“Yeah. Work’s been a madhouse.” John paid for his coffee. Here, I ended the speech with a period, since I didn’t use a dialog tag. *see below*
If, instead of the above, I had used a tag, it would be: “Yeah. Work’s been a madhouse,” John said, paying for his coffee. If a dialog tag is used, a comma replaces a period at the end of the last sentence being spoken. Question marks and exclamations are not replaced by a comma.
- We can use attributions, or dialog tags, to let the reader know who’s speaking. The use of dialog tags is becoming less favored than it once was. Now, the preferred method to let the reader know who’s speaking is to make it clear through word choice, sentence structure, action beats. I’ll delve into all that in another post. It used to be fashionable to use all sorts of creative dialog tags to keep from boring the reader with said. Who can forget the ever popular “Oh, no!” he ejaculated.? Now, said and asked are considered sufficient, and nearly invisible, or unobtrusive, to the reader. Personally, I prefer to use almost no dialog tags.
- When using a dialog tag, following the closing quotation, the next word is not capitalized unless it is a proper noun, since it is a continuation of the same sentence.
“I’m glad that’s finished,” Mary said. The comma replaces the period after finished, and since Mary is a proper noun, it’s capitalized.
“Me, too,” he said. Again, the comma replaces the period after too, and since he is a pronoun, it isn’t capitalized.
Next week, I’ll look at dialog tags, action beats, and breaking up the dialog.
Is there anything about dialog in particular that drives you nuts?