13 April 2006

"Today we'll do a lesson on dialogue," Word Nerd said.

It's hard to write a story without people talking. I'm sure there are authors out there who have done it, and quite successfully, but for the majority of writers, dialogue is a necessity.

How to write good dialogue is tougher than it sounds. Word Nerd will help get you started in three easy steps.

First, the punctuation mechanics.
· Every time someone speaks, you need quotation marks. Start and end what a speaker says with quotation marks. "Like this?" "Yes," Word Nerd said. "Like that."
· Every time someone speaks, it's a new paragraph. The previous example really should be:
“Like this?”
“Yes,” Word Nerd said. “Like that.”
Punctuation goes inside the quotation marks in almost every situation. When adding a dialogue tag (like Word Nerd said) a comma goes before the close quote and then a period after the tag. If there is no dialogue tag, the ending punctuation goes inside the quotes.
“Notice where the comma is,” Word Nerd said.
“It is inside the quotation marks.”

Next, dialogue tags.
Most of the time, using said is the best bet. Said is almost like a form of punctuation to readers. They kind of see it and skip it. At one time, Word Nerd had an English teacher who made her write a story using words other than said (exclaimed, elaborated, etc.) It was good advice for trying to give the piece more active verbs, but all-in-all, it really wasn’t the best technique for writing fiction.
Dialogue tags are necessary to help the reader follow the flow of the conversation and which character is speaking. Nothing frustrates Word Nerd more than when she has to go back to the beginning of a long conversation and reread it, adding her own tags to make sure she’s got the speakers straight at the end. This is especially necessary if there are more than two characters talking.
When possible, you can skip tags by including in the dialogue the clues to help the reader. Donald E. Westlake writes great dialogue in his Dortmunder novels, so Word Nerd turns to his book, “Drowned Hopes,” for an example. Note: Westlake does use words other than said, but the scene calls for it since one character is speaking on a cell phone during a robbery.

“John?” Kelp whispered. “Is that you?”
“What’s goin on?” demanded
Dortmunder’s voice, getting belligerent. “Who is that there?”
“It’s me, John,” Kelp whispered. “It’s Andy.”
“What? Who is that?”
“It’s Andy,” Kelp whispered hoarsely, lips against the mouthpiece. “Andy Kelp.”
“Andy? Is that you?”
“Yes, John, yes.”
“Well, what are you whispering about. You got laryngitis?”
“No, I’m fine.”
“Then stop whispering.”
“The fact of the matter is, John,” Kelp whispered, hunkering low over the phone, “I’m robbing a store at the moment.”

Third, avoid Tom Swifties and other unnecessary adverbs.

A Tom Swifty is a pun, when the adverb used in the dialogue tag becomes a play on words with what was said in the dialogue. It’s called a Tom Swifty because of a book character, Tom Swift, who almost never spoke without saying it jokingly, mockingly, etc.
For example, “You have the right to remain silent,” Tom said arrestingly.
Tom Swifties often just happen without the writer meaning to create such a play on words. Best bet, leave off the –ly words with most dialogue tags. Take a look back at the scene from “Drowned Hopes” and you’ll see Westlake only used one –ly word in all that dialogue.

What goes into the dialogue is another matter all together. Stay tuned.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The rules you quoted for proper use of quotation marks are, specifically, the ones used in the USA, not Great Britain or other English-speaking countries -- and even in the USA, those rules are beginning to change. You'll find more info here: