Craft Chat CRAFT CHAT: Dialogue - Part One

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Carol Rose

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DIALOGUE - PART ONE

This post is about two things: a basic overview of punctuating dialogue, and how to write dialogue that accomplishes The Big Three:

Gives the reader new/important information
Moves the story forward
Shows characterization


Do you need to do all three with every line of dialogue you write? No, but if you can accomplish that, it will keep your story tight and help remove the fluff. As we’ve discussed in past CC posts, narrative should be confined to what’s needed in the story to move it forward. If it’s not relevant, it doesn’t belong in there.

Some writers get the narrative tightened up nicely, but when they get to the dialogue part, for some reason they feel compelled to write every “um,” “eh,” and “Hey how are? Oh just fine, and you?” The result? The exchange moves at a snail’s pace and is boring. We start skimming right past the chit chat.

But Carol, the chit chat is realistic. Isn’t that what we’re trying to accomplish with dialogue? Make it real?

Yes, and no.

We want reality, in that we want our characters to sound authentic. We want them to speak to each other the same way real people do. But we speak in chit chat and incomplete sentences most of the time. The small talk when we first get to work and greet our co-workers. The casual stop on the street to speak with someone we know, or have recently been introduced to. The “How are you doing?’ phone conversations with family members or friends. But if you break down the dialogue in books, you’ll see that most authors keep that to a minimum, or avoid it entirely.

Think of it this way. If you were to give someone directions, would you include such steps as walk down the stairs, or turn on the engine of your car? No, because those steps are assumed. You would only hit the high points. The important points. The steps that will get that person from A to B. Turn left here, turn right there, go past this building, etc.

We do the same thing when we pare down the dialogue in stories. We skip the assumed parts. The chit chat stuff. The small talk about the weather or about the weekend you had. That’s not to say it might not be important for a particular scene to include some of that, but we don’t need to begin every single exchange between two or more people with the assumed stuff.

As an example, and I see this a lot with newer writers (and unfortunately some seasoned ones!) starting every single phone call with the “Hello, this is so-and so” and “Hello, how are you?” back and forth between the characters. If we know who is making the call and who they are calling, that is not needed. It gives the writing an amateurish feel. Just step right into the conversation and get on with it. The writing is tighter that way, and you’re only giving your readers what they need in that conversation.

The same thing goes for in-person conversation in stories. Nothing is more boring than scrolling through paragraphs and paragraphs of chit-chat before finally getting to the point. It’s tempting when you’re uncomfortable with meaningful dialogue to toss in everything you imagine you’d say to someone in that situation, but ninety percent of it likely isn’t needed.

Let’s write out a scene as an example. First, I’ll include everything, only I’m not going to include dialogue tags or action in this example. I want you to concentrate solely on the dialogue. This is between John and Sally who have known each other a long time, are good friends, and are having a chat over coffee…

“Hi John.”

“Hi Sally.”

“How are you?”

“I’m fine, and you?”

“Oh, okay. You know.”

“Having one of those days?”

“Yeah. It’s nothing. Really.”

“Well, Sally, it’s obviously something.”

“You don’t want to hear it.”

“Sure I do. Tell me.”

“Well, only if you’re sure.”

“I wouldn’t have asked otherwise.”

“You’re such a great friend.”

“So are you.”

“Well, okay. I had a call from Margie late last night.”

“That’s the cousin who broke up with her boyfriend, right?”

“Yeah, that one.”

“The same one who got caught shoplifting?”

“Yeah. She’s a peach.”

“So what did she call you about this time?”

“She was in jail.”

“What? She called you from jail?”

“No, she called me after she got released on bond.”

“Why was she arrested?”

“She’s back with the boyfriend.”

“That’s why she was arrested?”

“No. She was arrested with him.”

“For what?”

“You’re not going to believe this.”

“Try me.”

“They vandalized a building.”

“What?”

“Some gas station where he used to work.”

“Why?”

“They fired him and he wanted revenge.”

“And Margie decided it would be a good idea to help him do that?”

“Apparently so.”

“What an idiot.”

“No kidding.”

“What does she expect you to do?’

“Lend her money, of course.”

“For what?”

“An attorney.”

“She can use a public defender.”

“She wants the best for herself and Derek.”

“Are you going to do it?”

“Hell no. I have better things to spend my money on right now.”

“Uh-oh.”

“What?’

“That tone in your voice. I know you, Sally. What else is going on?”

“I finally had the CT scan.”

“For your abdominal pain?”

“Yes.”

“And?”

“And I’m sick.”

“Sick how?”

“John, I have colon cancer.”


Okay. So what was the new information in this exchange? We found out Sally has cancer. That’s certainly new and important. Is the information about her dumbass cousin new? It sounds more like the same old, same old. So is it important to the story? Not as important as telling a good friend you have cancer.

If the story was about Sally’s cousin it might be important, but clearly it’s not. And even if the story was about Sally’s cousin, there are much tighter ways to write that information.

It’s all small talk, chit chat, and fluff until you get to the last line, isn’t it? And it was boring as heck to read. Even with dialogue tags and action added, that would have been a silly exchange right up to the end. It might be realistic, in that you can see two people actually having that conversation, but does it belong in a story, word-for-word like that? No.

That exchange took 281 words without tags or action, and all we learned was one important fact. Sally has cancer. Add in a few tags and some action, and we’d likely double the word count, but would still only convey one important fact to the reader.

So let’s rewrite that, still without any tags or action, but this time we’ll take out the fluff…

“Having one of those days, Sally?”

“Yeah. I had a call from Margie late last night.”

“What is it this time? Another break-up? Did she steal something else?”

“Close. She called me after she got released on bond. Apparently she’s back with Derek, and they both thought it would be a good idea to vandalize the gas station where he got fired from, to get revenge.”

“What an idiot. What does she expect you to do?”

“Lend her money, of course. She wants the best attorney for them.”

“Tell her that’s what public defenders are for. You have better things to spend your money on.”

“Isn’t that the truth.”

“What’s going on?”

“I finally had the CT scan.”

“And?”

“John, I have colon cancer.”


That only took 124 words. Same information, but the focus is on the last line instead of the useless back-and-forth about Margie and Derek before we finally get to the meat of it. Add in a couple of tags and some action, and you have a powerful scene that gives the reader important information, moves the story forward, and shows characterization.

Economy of words doesn’t have to be confined to narrative. And, to give your readers a balanced story, it shouldn’t be. You need to exercise the same constraint with the dialogue as well.

Just as we drop our readers into the middle of the protagonist’s main conflict at the start of a story, it’s all right to jump into the middle of a conversation, too. You only need a line or two of action, and perhaps a dialogue tag, to ground them in the Who is speaking, Why are they speaking, When are they speaking, What are they talking about, and Where they are.

Yes, the same Big Five we talked about in Setting can be incorporated for each scene of dialogue. This is usually easily accomplished because you’ve set up most of this in the context of the story beforehand. But keep it in mind if this is the first time we’re meeting the characters, if time has passed in the story, or if we’ve changed the place where the characters are when the dialogue begins.

Before we get to punctuation, I want to call your attention to what's known as the "As you know, Bob" way of writing dialogue. If your characters already know something, and as a reader you know they know, don't be tempted to explain backstory or history in this way. It's an obvious plot device and comes across as both amateurish and fake. Here's an example...

"I had a call from Steve last night."

"You mean our cousin Steve?"

"Yes, Aunt Betty's oldest son."

If this is two people, especially adults, related to each other, they already know Aunt Betty's oldest son is named Steve, and Steve is their cousin. Don't be tempted to give your reader an extended family tree by having two adults define the members of that tree in a conversation like this. No one speaks to a cousin or a sibling this way. It's not realistic.

I could give tons of other examples, but hopefully with this short one you get the big picture. :)

On to punctuation. Instead of tacking on this part inside a future Craft Chat post that will deal with grammar and punctuation basics, I’ve decided to put it here because it makes more sense.

Nothing ruins a great story faster than simple punctuation mistakes. One or two will be overlooked if the story is wonderful and the dialogue is engaging. But if you make the same mistakes every single time someone in the story speaks, that submission will be tossed aside. Fixing simple mistakes like that is YOUR job. It shows you’re a professional, and you care enough to learn the basics of the craft and make sure your story shows that.

Before a dialogue tag, use a comma unless the sentence ends in a question mark or an exclamation mark. However, in both instances, the first word of the tag is NOT capitalized.

“Let’s go see a movie,” she said.

“Do you want to go see a movie?” she asked.

If the dialogue comes after the tag, whether or not you use a comma depends on how you frame the dialogue.


John asked Sally, “Do you want to go to a movie?”

John cleared his throat before asking Sally a question. “Do you want to go to a movie?”


In the second two sentences, John clearing his throat is a complete thought. It’s a separate sentence. Trying to write all that as a tag would be awkward and clumsy.

The first word of any sentence in dialogue is capitalized UNLESS you’re breaking up a complete sentence with a tag in the middle.


“Hey, Sally,” said John, “do you want to go to a movie?”

Hey, Sally, do you want to go to a movie? is a complete sentence, so when you break it up with a tag, you still use commas at each end, but the first word of the continued dialogue after the tag is not capitalized.

There are more examples, but these are the basics. Below I’ve included several links where you can read more about punctuating different types of dialogue exchanges. Learn this. Use this. It could mean the difference between a Thanks, but not for us and a Please send the full manuscript email.

8 Essential Rules for Punctuating Dialogue - article

7 Rules of Punctuating Dialogue: How to Punctuate Dialogue Easily

Punctuation in Dialogue

How to Punctuate Dialogue

That’s it! Your turn. Let’s discuss…
 
My younger acting sprog needs a show reel. She's starting teacher training in Sept but the acting doesn't have to stop. Useful skill in teaching, acting. The problem with these is sourcing original material without getting into trouble with copyright. The actor has to be a writer as well, except why should they be? Many producers of show reels are technical or artistic editors, but don't necessarily provide or write material. There is surely a writing market there.

I offered her a bit of dialogue she could use if stuck, taken from my novel- in- a- drawer, but I had to turn it into script form for her, and that was an interesting half hour exercise. It showed me at a glance where the slack was, I hadn't picked up on before.
 
My younger acting sprog needs a show reel. The problem with these is sourcing original material without getting into trouble with copyright. The actor has to be a writer as well, except why should they be? Many producers of show reels are technical or artistic editors, but don't necessarily provide or write material. There is surely a writing market there.

I offered her a bit of dialogue she could use if stuck, taken from my novel- in- a- drawer, but I had to turn it into script form for her, and that was an interesting half hour exercise. It showed me at a glance where the slack was, I hadn't picked up on before.

Yes, dialogue in shows or movies is a completely different ballgame, isn't it?
 
I love writing dialogue.
I think it stems from having a drama and broadcasting background.
Dialogue is so useful for developing characters and imparting plot information, but one of my favourite aspects of dialogue is its potential for humour.

Here's an extract from Gerald Durrell's My Family And Other Animals:

‘What is it ?’ asked Larry at length.

‘It’s a bathing-costume, of course,’ said Mother. ‘What on earth did you think it was ?’

‘It looks to me like a badly-skinned whale,’ said Larry, peering at it closely.

‘You can’t possibly wear that. Mother,’ said Margo, horrified, ‘why, it looks as though it was made in nineteen- twenty.’

‘What are all those frills and things for?’ asked Larry with interest.

‘Decoration, of course,’ said Mother indignantly.

‘What a jolly idea! Don’t forget to shake the fish out of them when you come out of the water.’

‘Well, I like it, anyway,’ Mother said firmly, wrapping the monstrosity up again, ‘and I’m going to wear it.’

‘You’ll have to be careful you don’t get waterlogged, with all that cloth around you,’ said Leslie seriously.

‘Mother, it’s awful — you can’t wear it,’ said Margo. ‘Why on earth didn’t you get something more up to date ?’

‘When you get to my age, dear, you can’t go around in a two-piece bathing suit . . . you don’t have the figure for it.’

‘I’d love to know what sort of figure that was designed for,’ remarked Larry.

‘You really are hopeless, Mother,’ said Margo despairingly.

‘But I like it . . . and I’m not asking you to wear it,’ Mother pointed out belligerently.

‘That’s right, you do what you want to do,’ agreed Larry; ‘don’t be put off. It’ll probably suit you very well if you can grow another three or four legs to go with it.’


This then sets up a chaotic scene in which Mother gets thoroughly out of her depth (figuratively speaking) while wearing the swimming costume, which the dog tries to tear off her under the mistaken impression a strange beast is attacking her.
 
Using indirect speech in passages of dialogue can also have a comic effect. Back to Gerald Durrell and another extract from My Family And Other Animals:

I casually asked him what he would like to give me for my birthday.

‘Hadn’t thought about it,’ he replied absently, examining with evident satisfaction a contorted piece of metal. ‘I don’t mind . . . anything you like, you choose.’

I said I wanted a boat. Leslie, realizing how he had been trapped, said indignantly that a boat was far too large a present for a birthday, and anyway he couldn’t afford it. I said, equally indignantly, that he had told me to choose what I liked. Leslie said yes, he had, but he hadn’t meant a boat, as they were terribly expensive. I said that when one said anything one meant anything, which included boats, and anyway I didn’t expect him to buy me one. I had thought, since he knew so much about boats, he would be able to build me one. However, if he thought that would be too difficult . . .

‘Of course it’s not difficult, said Leslie, unguardedly, and then added hastily, ‘Well . . . not terribly difficult. But it’s the time. It would take ages and ages to do. Look, wouldn’t it be better if I took you out in the Sea Cow twice a week?’

But I was adamant; I wanted a boat and I was quite prepared to wait for it.

‘Oh, all right, all right,’ said Leslie exasperatedly, ‘I’ll build you a boat. But I’m not having you hanging around while I do it, understand? You’re to keep well away. You’re not to see it until it’s finished.’


The indirect speech used here, as well as having a mildly humorous effect, also gives the reader a powerful impression of the rapid to-ing and fro-ing that goes on during the argument between the two brothers — thanks to the lack of speech marks, among other things.

Also, note how often Durrell uses adverbs. But personally, (!) I think they work.
 
My younger acting sprog needs a show reel. She's starting teacher training in Sept but the acting doesn't have to stop. Useful skill in teaching, acting. The problem with these is sourcing original material without getting into trouble with copyright. The actor has to be a writer as well, except why should they be? Many producers of show reels are technical or artistic editors, but don't necessarily provide or write material. There is surely a writing market there.
I used to be a TV editor, in a former life before moving to Spain, and I've cut my fair share of showreels for front-of-camera talent. I've never heard of actors having to write their own stuff for a reel. The copyright dangers are negligible given that showreels are essentially visual CVs. If talent had to clear copyright every time they wanted to show their work to a prospective employer, the whole idea of showreels would have died out years ago.

The one piece of advice I'd offer to your young'un would be to avoid having a budding editor cut her reel. The tendency for young editors is to showcase their editing talent rather than the actor's. Something to watch out for.

[Sorry for the off-topic interlude. I'll post something later that's dialogue related!]
 
An editor once told me dialogue should be a zig zag of interaction, with one line feeding off the next and so on, always related to one another.

One quote I like, "good dialogue illuminates what people are not saying" by Robert Towne. If there's not some of this quote in your writing, then you risk writing, "on the nose".
 
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Finally (for the minute!) writing dialogue is when we need to throw the advice our school Literacy teachers gave us in the bin.

Generally speaking, (see what I did there?) avoid synonyms for the verb "say".

The occasional variation, mostly to indicate volume levels (whisper, shout etc.) is fine but, as most of us on here have probably discovered by now, verbs like "questioned" "insisted" "suggested" "remarked" etc. draw too much attention to themselves and break up the dialogue flow.

When choosing a new book to read, I usually home in on a section of dialogue and if there are too many "say" synonyms and indeed, too much dialogue tagging, I put it aside. It feels overwritten and I know the style will irritate me too much to enjoy the story. Sparse and spare is usually a better way to go, in my view.
 
Said is best. But having said that, I like a little variety in the tags I read. A book I just finished (published 2017) mainly used said, but I liked the way she used "cried", "mumbled" and "demanded".

Of course, I find "asked" is invisible as "said" too.
 
Said is best. But having said that, I like a little variety in the tags I read. A book I just finished (published 2017) mainly used said, but I liked the way she used "cried", "mumbled" and "demanded".

Of course, I find "asked" is invisible as "said" too.

Yes, asked is usually fine - just not used as much.

And "cried" is another volume modifier. "Mumbled" and "demanded" need to be deployed with care, but can work when used judiciously.

It's only a rule of thumb to stick to "say/said", and of course verbs synonymous with said are okay to use, provided the writer is sufficiently skilled to make them seem invisible or perfectly contextualised.

I defy anyone to use "opined" and get away with it, though. :D
 
I love writing dialogue.
I think it stems from having a drama and broadcasting background.
Dialogue is so useful for developing characters and imparting plot information, but one of my favourite aspects of dialogue is its potential for humour.

Here's an extract from Gerald Durrell's My Family And Other Animals:

‘What is it ?’ asked Larry at length.

‘It’s a bathing-costume, of course,’ said Mother. ‘What on earth did you think it was ?’

‘It looks to me like a badly-skinned whale,’ said Larry, peering at it closely.

‘You can’t possibly wear that. Mother,’ said Margo, horrified, ‘why, it looks as though it was made in nineteen- twenty.’

‘What are all those frills and things for?’ asked Larry with interest.

‘Decoration, of course,’ said Mother indignantly.

‘What a jolly idea! Don’t forget to shake the fish out of them when you come out of the water.’

‘Well, I like it, anyway,’ Mother said firmly, wrapping the monstrosity up again, ‘and I’m going to wear it.’

‘You’ll have to be careful you don’t get waterlogged, with all that cloth around you,’ said Leslie seriously.

‘Mother, it’s awful — you can’t wear it,’ said Margo. ‘Why on earth didn’t you get something more up to date ?’

‘When you get to my age, dear, you can’t go around in a two-piece bathing suit . . . you don’t have the figure for it.’

‘I’d love to know what sort of figure that was designed for,’ remarked Larry.

‘You really are hopeless, Mother,’ said Margo despairingly.

‘But I like it . . . and I’m not asking you to wear it,’ Mother pointed out belligerently.

‘That’s right, you do what you want to do,’ agreed Larry; ‘don’t be put off. It’ll probably suit you very well if you can grow another three or four legs to go with it.’


This then sets up a chaotic scene in which Mother gets thoroughly out of her depth (figuratively speaking) while wearing the swimming costume, which the dog tries to tear off her under the mistaken impression a strange beast is attacking her.


Hehehe
 
Finally (for the minute!) writing dialogue is when we need to throw the advice our school Literacy teachers gave us in the bin.

Generally speaking, (see what I did there?) avoid synonyms for the verb "say".

The occasional variation, mostly to indicate volume levels (whisper, shout etc.) is fine but, as most of us on here have probably discovered by now, verbs like "questioned" "insisted" "suggested" "remarked" etc. draw too much attention to themselves and break up the dialogue flow.

When choosing a new book to read, I usually home in on a section of dialogue and if there are too many "say" synonyms and indeed, too much dialogue tagging, I put it aside. It feels overwritten and I know the style will irritate me too much to enjoy the story. Sparse and spare is usually a better way to go, in my view.

I purposefully didn't go there with the tags because it's such a hot topic, but I TOTALLy agree with you. I can't stand to read people growling, laughing, chortling, snorting, or sneering words. Because really, we can't do that AND talk at the same time. But when I point that out to some people, they don't understand it. *insert massive eye roll here* They're confusing trying to show an action with a dialogue tag. NOT the same thing. *SIGH*

I use tags only when absolutely necessary. I hate them, actually. I've written entire pages of dialogue without them, because I put just enough action in there that my readers have no doubt who's speaking. To me it's cleaner that way, plus it gives me a chance to show something rather than letting the tags try to do that work for me.

But that's another CC post altogether... LOL!! :)
 
I use tags only when absolutely necessary. I hate them, actually. I've written entire pages of dialogue without them, because I put just enough action in there that my readers have no doubt who's speaking. To me it's cleaner that way, plus it gives me a chance to show something rather than letting the tags try to do that work for me.

Yes, I like to write dialogue with occasional actions taking the place of tags (not doing both at the same time...totally agree with you there!)

I remember reading an entire page of dialogue in La Belle Savage by Philip Pullman and noting that there was only one speech tag, yet it was perfectly clear who was doing the talking.

The teen novel I'm writing at the moment has a lot of modern day, 16-year-old Bogart & Bacall-type dialogue going on and I'm enjoying writing it so much. I expect I'll have to do a bit of darling-killing on re-draft, but letting rip is a huge blast. (phnar, phnar)
 
I do take a slightly different approach to writing dialogue. I let my characters write their own dialogue. This makes the dialogue feel as natural possible.

What I mean by this is that rather than driving the dialogue as the writer myself, I get into the psychology of my characters and understand what they want to say and don't want to say.

I think this stems from my interest in amateur dramatics; I'm used to trying to get inside my character's head.

To me dialogue is a product of everything else that's happening in a scene. You can't write the dialogue without understanding all the other aspects of the scene; dialogue comes last. The writer controls all the other aspects, but not the dialogue itself.

When I'm writing a scene with dialogue below are all the kind of things I try to have in my mind for each character.

What do they want?
What do they know?
What do they want to know?
What do they know that the other character doesn't? And thus: what might they like to hide? What might they like to boast about?
What's the relationship does these characters have? Is one more powerful than the other or are they equal?
What range of vocabulary does my character have? How might they say something? Do they have an accent?
What's the urgency of the scene?
And so on.

Once you know your characters and the scene inside out the dialogue will write itself.

Often your characters will waffle. Or they might want to talk about something that doesn't progress the plot. To me the solution here is not to force your characters to say something they don't want to say. Don't change the dialogue - change the scene!

If your characters keep talking about boring things, maybe they're boring! Alter their character.

If your characters don't want to discuss a key plot point, then maybe it's not critical enough to your characters. Maybe your characters aren't invested enough in your plot. Maybe they need more motivation, more urgency.

The other key to dialogue is everything between the lines. What is not said. People rarely say what they mean; we lie, we bend the truth often to be kind, sometimes to mean, sometimes because we have an ulterior motive, sometimes because we have to be diplomatic. But we are almost never completely and totally honest and it's that lack of honesty, the sense of hidden meaning that both characters sense that something is lying under the surface, that gives your dialogue tension and without that tension, dialogue is flat and boring.

Tarantino is the master of inserting tension into dialogue, which on the face of it is boring. To me he does this best in Inglorious Bastards. Both the first scene and the scene in the basement pub are filled with what on paper is dull dialogue, but it's that Tarantino places his characters in deadly situations where the tension is under the surface of the scene. Characters are suspecting each other, measuring one another up, thinking carefully about what to say and what not to say and we the viewer/reader are place slap bang in the middle of it waiting for the explosion.

If your dialogue isn't working it's because there's something wrong with your scene, plot, setting or characters. The dialogue is the end product and to me fixing it alone is like having a repair shop at the end of a faulty production line.
 
I love writing dialogue.
I think it stems from having a drama and broadcasting background.
Dialogue is so useful for developing characters and imparting plot information, but one of my favourite aspects of dialogue is its potential for humour.

Here's an extract from Gerald Durrell's My Family And Other Animals:

‘What is it ?’ asked Larry at length.

‘It’s a bathing-costume, of course,’ said Mother. ‘What on earth did you think it was ?’

‘It looks to me like a badly-skinned whale,’ said Larry, peering at it closely.

‘You can’t possibly wear that. Mother,’ said Margo, horrified, ‘why, it looks as though it was made in nineteen- twenty.’

‘What are all those frills and things for?’ asked Larry with interest.

‘Decoration, of course,’ said Mother indignantly.

‘What a jolly idea! Don’t forget to shake the fish out of them when you come out of the water.’

‘Well, I like it, anyway,’ Mother said firmly, wrapping the monstrosity up again, ‘and I’m going to wear it.’

‘You’ll have to be careful you don’t get waterlogged, with all that cloth around you,’ said Leslie seriously.

‘Mother, it’s awful — you can’t wear it,’ said Margo. ‘Why on earth didn’t you get something more up to date ?’

‘When you get to my age, dear, you can’t go around in a two-piece bathing suit . . . you don’t have the figure for it.’

‘I’d love to know what sort of figure that was designed for,’ remarked Larry.

‘You really are hopeless, Mother,’ said Margo despairingly.

‘But I like it . . . and I’m not asking you to wear it,’ Mother pointed out belligerently.

‘That’s right, you do what you want to do,’ agreed Larry; ‘don’t be put off. It’ll probably suit you very well if you can grow another three or four legs to go with it.’


This then sets up a chaotic scene in which Mother gets thoroughly out of her depth (figuratively speaking) while wearing the swimming costume, which the dog tries to tear off her under the mistaken impression a strange beast is attacking her.

Just finished watching The Durrels tv series. It reflected the tone of the dialogue you quoted perfectly.
 
I do take a slightly different approach to writing dialogue. I let my characters write their own dialogue. This makes the dialogue feel as natural possible.

What I mean by this is that rather than driving the dialogue as the writer myself, I get into the psychology of my characters and understand what they want to say and don't want to say.

I think this stems from my interest in amateur dramatics; I'm used to trying to get inside my character's head.

To me dialogue is a product of everything else that's happening in a scene. You can't write the dialogue without understanding all the other aspects of the scene; dialogue comes last. The writer controls all the other aspects, but not the dialogue itself.

When I'm writing a scene with dialogue below are all the kind of things I try to have in my mind for each character.

What do they want?
What do they know?
What do they want to know?
What do they know that the other character doesn't? And thus: what might they like to hide? What might they like to boast about?
What's the relationship does these characters have? Is one more powerful than the other or are they equal?
What range of vocabulary does my character have? How might they say something? Do they have an accent?
What's the urgency of the scene?
And so on.

Once you know your characters and the scene inside out the dialogue will write itself.

Often your characters will waffle. Or they might want to talk about something that doesn't progress the plot. To me the solution here is not to force your characters to say something they don't want to say. Don't change the dialogue - change the scene!

If your characters keep talking about boring things, maybe they're boring! Alter their character.

If your characters don't want to discuss a key plot point, then maybe it's not critical enough to your characters. Maybe your characters aren't invested enough in your plot. Maybe they need more motivation, more urgency.

The other key to dialogue is everything between the lines. What is not said. People rarely say what they mean; we lie, we bend the truth often to be kind, sometimes to mean, sometimes because we have an ulterior motive, sometimes because we have to be diplomatic. But we are almost never completely and totally honest and it's that lack of honesty, the sense of hidden meaning that both characters sense that something is lying under the surface, that gives your dialogue tension and without that tension, dialogue is flat and boring.

Tarantino is the master of inserting tension into dialogue, which on the face of it is boring. To me he does this best in Inglorious Bastards. Both the first scene and the scene in the basement pub are filled with what on paper is dull dialogue, but it's that Tarantino places his characters in deadly situations where the tension is under the surface of the scene. Characters are suspecting each other, measuring one another up, thinking carefully about what to say and what not to say and we the viewer/reader are place slap bang in the middle of it waiting for the explosion.

If your dialogue isn't working it's because there's something wrong with your scene, plot, setting or characters. The dialogue is the end product and to me fixing it alone is like having a repair shop at the end of a faulty production line.

Yes, great points! Dialogue doesn't exist in a vacuum. It needs to be authentic to your characters. We'll cover character development in another CC post, but I'm writing this dialogue post with the assumption that a person has first done their character development.

Screenwriting, however, is entirely different to writing a novel, which is where some authors get tripped up. You only have so many minutes of screen time to get points across in a show or a movie, so the dialogue has to be even tighter and pack a more powerful punch. And depending on the genre, there are audience expectations, just as there are in book genres. You wouldn't write the dialogue in a sit-com the same way you'd write an action/adventure story, for example.

Because I write romance which is a character-driven genre, I always do my character profiles first. I write everything off those. The dialogue, the plot progression, everything. My feeling is if I don't know them, how on earth can I write them? I need to understand them as people before I'll know what they would say in a given situation. If the dialogue isn't authentic to those characters, they will all sound the same and it will read as forced or cliched.
 
DIALOGUE

This post is about two things: punctuating dialogue, and how to write dialogue that accomplishes The Big Three:

Gives the reader new/important information
Moves the story forward
Shows characterization


Do you need to do all three with every line of dialogue you write? No, but if you can accomplish that, it will keep your story tight and help remove the fluff. As we’ve discussed in past CC posts, narrative should be confined to what’s needed in the story to move it forward. If it’s not relevant, it doesn’t belong in there.

Some writers get the narrative tightened up nicely, but when they get to the dialogue part, for some reason they feel compelled to write every “um,” “eh,” and “Hey how are? Oh just fine, and you?” The result? The exchange moves at a snail’s pace and is boring. We start skimming right past the chit chat.

But Carol, the chit chat is realistic. Isn’t that what we’re trying to accomplish with dialogue? Make it real?

Yes, and no.

We want reality, in that we want our characters to sound authentic. We want them to speak to each other the same way real people do. But we speak in chit chat and incomplete sentences most of the time. The small talk when we first get to work and greet our co-workers. The casual stop on the street to speak with someone we know, or have recently been introduced to. The “How are you doing?’ phone conversations with family members or friends. But if you break down the dialogue in books, you’ll see that most authors keep that to a minimum, or avoid it entirely.

Think of it this way. If you were to give someone directions, would you include such steps as walk down the stairs, or turn on the engine of your car? No, because those steps are assumed. You would only hit the high points. The important points. The steps that will get that person from A to B. Turn left here, turn right there, go past this building, etc.

We do the same thing when we pare down the dialogue in stories. We skip the assumed parts. The chit chat stuff. The small talk about the weather or about the weekend you had. That’s not to say it might not be important for a particular scene to include some of that, but we don’t need to begin every single exchange between two or more people with the assumed stuff.

As an example, and I see this a lot with newer writers (and unfortunately some seasoned ones!) starting every single phone call with the “Hello, this is so-and so” and “Hello, how are you?” back and forth between the characters. If we know who is making the call and who they are calling, that is not needed. It gives the writing an amateurish feel. Just step right into the conversation and get on with it. The writing is tighter that way, and you’re only giving your readers what they need in that conversation.

The same thing goes for in-person conversation in stories. Nothing is more boring than scrolling through paragraphs and paragraphs of chit-chat before finally getting to the point. It’s tempting when you’re uncomfortable with meaningful dialogue to toss in everything you imagine you’d say to someone in that situation, but ninety percent of it likely isn’t needed.

Let’s write out a scene as an example. First, I’ll include everything, only I’m not going to include dialogue tags or action in this example. I want you to concentrate solely on the dialogue. This is between John and Sally who have known each other a long time, are good friends, and are having a chat over coffee…

“Hi John.”

“Hi Sally.”

“How are you?”

“I’m fine, and you?”

“Oh, okay. You know.”

“Having one of those days?”

“Yeah. It’s nothing. Really.”

“Well, Sally, it’s obviously something.”

“You don’t want to hear it.”

“Sure I do. Tell me.”

“Well, only if you’re sure.”

“I wouldn’t have asked otherwise.”

“You’re such a great friend.”

“So are you.”

“Well, okay. I had a call from Margie late last night.”

“That’s the cousin who broke up with her boyfriend, right?”

“Yeah, that one.”

“The same one who got caught shoplifting?”

“Yeah. She’s a peach.”

“So what did she call you about this time?”

“She was in jail.”

“What? She called you from jail?”

“No, she called me after she got released on bond.”

“Why was she arrested?”

“She’s back with the boyfriend.”

“That’s why she was arrested?”

“No. She was arrested with him.”

“For what?”

“You’re not going to believe this.”

“Try me.”

“They vandalized a building.”

“What?”

“Some gas station where he used to work.”

“Why?”

“They fired him and he wanted revenge.”

“And Margie decided it would be a good idea to help him do that?”

“Apparently so.”

“What an idiot.”

“No kidding.”

“What does she expect you to do?’

“Lend her money, of course.”

“For what?”

“An attorney.”

“She can use a public defender.”

“She wants the best for herself and Derek.”

“Are you going to do it?”

“Hell no. I have better things to spend my money on right now.”

“Uh-oh.”

“What?’

“That tone in your voice. I know you, Sally. What else is going on?”

“I finally had the CT scan.”

“For your abdominal pain?”

“Yes.”

“And?”

“And I’m sick.”

“Sick how?”

“John, I have colon cancer.”


Okay. So what was the new information in this exchange? We found out Sally has cancer. That’s certainly new and important. Is the information about her dumbass cousin new? It sounds more like the same old, same old. So is it important to the story? Not as important as telling a good friend you have cancer.

If the story was about Sally’s cousin it might be important, but clearly it’s not. And even if the story was about Sally’s cousin, there are much tighter ways to write that information.

It’s all small talk, chit chat, and fluff until you get to the last line, isn’t it? And it was boring as heck to read. Even with dialogue tags and action added, that would have been a silly exchange right up to the end. It might be realistic, in that you can see two people actually having that conversation, but does it belong in a story, word-for-word like that? No.

That exchange took 281 words without tags or action, and all we learned was one important fact. Sally has cancer. Add in a few tags and some action, and we’d likely double the word count, but would still only convey one important fact to the reader.

So let’s rewrite that, still without any tags or action, but this time we’ll take out the fluff…

“Having one of those days, Sally?”

“Yeah. I had a call from Margie late last night.”

“What is it this time? Another break-up? Did she steal something else?”

“Close. She called me after she got released on bond. Apparently she’s back with Derek, and they both thought it would be a good idea to vandalize the gas station where he got fired from, to get revenge.”

“What an idiot. What does she expect you to do?”

“Lend her money, of course. She wants the best attorney for them.”

“Tell her that’s what public defenders are for. You have better things to spend your money on.”

“Isn’t that the truth.”

“What’s going on?”

“I finally had the CT scan.”

“And?”

“John, I have colon cancer.”


That only took 124 words. Same information, but the focus is on the last line instead of the useless back-and-forth about Margie and Derek before we finally get to the meat of it. Add in a couple of tags and some action, and you have a powerful scene that gives the reader important information, moves the story forward, and shows characterization.

Economy of words doesn’t have to be confined to narrative. And, to give your readers a balanced story, it shouldn’t be. You need to exercise the same constraint with the dialogue as well.

Just as we drop our readers into the middle of the protagonist’s main conflict at the start of a story, it’s all right to jump into the middle of a conversation, too. You only need a line or two of action, and perhaps a dialogue tag, to ground them in the Who is speaking, Why are they speaking, When are they speaking, What are they talking about, and Where they are.

Yes, the same Big Five we talked about in Setting can be incorporated for each scene of dialogue. This is usually easily accomplished because you’ve set up most of this in the context of the story beforehand. But keep it in mind if this is the first time we’re meeting the characters, if time has passed in the story, or if we’ve changed the place where the characters are when the dialogue begins.

Before we get to punctuation, I want to call your attention to what's known as the "As you know, Bob" way of writing dialogue. If your characters already know something, and as a reader you know they know, don't be tempted to explain backstory or history in this way. It's an obvious plot device and comes across as both amateurish and fake. Here's an example...

"I had a call from Steve last night."

"You mean our cousin Steve?"

"Yes, Aunt Betty's oldest son."

If this is two people, especially adults, related to each other, they already know Aunt Betty's oldest son is named Steve, and Steve is their cousin. Don't be tempted to give your reader an extended family tree by having two adults define the members of that tree in a conversation like this. No one speaks to a cousin or a sibling this way. It's not realistic.

I could give tons of other examples, but hopefully with this short one you get the big picture. :)

On to punctuation. Instead of tacking on this part inside a future Craft Chat post that will deal with grammar and punctuation basics, I’ve decided to put it here because it makes more sense.

Nothing ruins a great story faster than simple punctuation mistakes. One or two will be overlooked if the story is wonderful and the dialogue is engaging. But if you make the same mistakes every single time someone in the story speaks, that submission will be tossed aside. Fixing simple mistakes like that is YOUR job. It shows you’re a professional, and you care enough to learn the basics of the craft and make sure your story shows that.

Before a dialogue tag, use a comma unless the sentence ends in a question mark or an exclamation mark. However, in both instances, the first word of the tag is NOT capitalized.

“Let’s go see a movie,” she said.

“Do you want to go see a movie?” she asked.

If the dialogue comes after the tag, whether or not you use a comma depends on how you frame the dialogue.


John asked Sally, “Do you want to go to a movie?”

John cleared his throat before asking Sally a question. “Do you want to go to a movie?”


In the second two sentences, John clearing his throat is a complete thought. It’s a separate sentence. Trying to write all that as a tag would be awkward and clumsy.

The first word of any sentence in dialogue is capitalized UNLESS you’re breaking up a complete sentence with a tag in the middle.


“Hey, Sally,” said John, “do you want to go to a movie?”

Hey, Sally, do you want to go to a movie? is a complete sentence, so when you break it up with a tag, you still use commas at each end, but the first word of the continued dialogue after the tag is not capitalized.

There are more examples, but these are the basics. Below I’ve included several links where you can read more about punctuating different types of dialogue exchanges. Learn this. Use this. It could mean the difference between a Thanks, but not for us and a Please send the full manuscript email.

8 Essential Rules for Punctuating Dialogue - article

7 Rules of Punctuating Dialogue: How to Punctuate Dialogue Easily

Punctuation in Dialogue

How to Punctuate Dialogue

That’s it! Your turn. Let’s discuss…
Hi Carol,
Re punctuation, I've noticed that authors often don't use a comma after "he/she said" any more.
“Come inside,” she said, opening the door.
becomes
"Come inside," she said opening the door.
Or:
"Come here," she said, smiling.
becomes
"Come here," she said smiling.
Are both examples of punctuating dialogue acceptable? If so, should you use either one or the other through the entire manuscript? I often come across both ways in the same novel.
 
Hi Carol,
Re punctuation, I've noticed that authors often don't use a comma after "he/she said" any more.
“Come inside,” she said, opening the door.
becomes
"Come inside," she said opening the door.
Or:
"Come here," she said, smiling.
becomes
"Come here," she said smiling.
Are both examples of punctuating dialogue acceptable? If so, should you use either one or the other through the entire manuscript? I often come across both ways in the same novel.

Commas in tags like that are another animal altogether. :) As long as you're consistent in your own manuscript, you won't go wrong. Often the use of commas is a matter of house style.
 
Yes, consistency makes sense.
Thanks, Carol.

Glad to help! :)

We'll cover comma use in another Craft Chat post, but basically it boils down to pick your favorite resource and stick to it consistently within your own manuscript. :) Once the book reaches the editing stage at a publisher, they'll treat commas according to their house style regardless. But by keeping your comma use consistent, it shows you've paid attention to whichever resource you're using and have self-edited your work accordingly before you submit it.
 
Fascinating thread as always! :)

A quick note on punctuation:

"They use double quotes in the US," said Liam.​
Olivia rasied an eyebrow. 'Yes, I knew that. But did you know they use single quotes in the UK?'​
"Really? 'Single quotes in the UK?' How about that? And quotes within quotes?"​
'You've got it right. "How about that?" Singles inside doubles in the US, and doubles inside singles in the UK. All clear?'​
"Clear as mud. Thanks for that."​
'Not a problem.'​

Oh, and that Olivia raised an eyebrow is sometimes called an action tag. Carol explained how they work above.
 
Fascinating thread as always! :)

A quick note on punctuation:

"They use double quotes in the US," said Liam.
Olivia rasied an eyebrow. 'Yes, I knew that. But did you know they use single quotes in the UK?'
"Really? 'Single quotes in the UK?' How about that? And quotes within quotes?"
'You've got it right. "How about that?" Singles inside doubles in the US, and doubles inside singles in the UK. All clear?'
"Clear as mud. Thanks for that."
'Not a problem.'

Right? As if it's not already confusing enough!

I didn't go there with the quote marks either because that's also tied to house style. So again, just be consistent within your own manuscript. :)
 
In Spanish fiction, they tend to use em dashes to denote speech (other parts of the continent also favour that approach...James Joyce used them too).

—I find the em dash speech punctuation a bit off-putting, but that's mainly because I so rarely encounter it.

"I don't tend to notice if single or double quotation marks are being used, the format is so familiar as to be invisible."
 
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There is one consideration when deciding whether to use double or single quotes:

If you use single quotes and the editor/publisher says to change the dialogue quotes to double, and you have to do a 'find-replace' [breathe slowly here], you have to go through and fix every single contraction you've used in the text. If you don't have a headache at the end of it (assuming you don't send it out for someone else or give up), your brain has been upgraded with a hard-drive (which can only be for evil purposes).

As a suggestion to start with, use the double-quotes for dialogue (singles for quotes within quotes, but there won't be many of them, will there?), and if the editor/publisher requests the change to single, it's easier. It won't be totally easy, because you won't know if the single quote is 'shaped' right (smart quotes), but often it is (depends on sw used).
 
85-ish K words and only 1 'says xyz'. A good thing? I don't know.

I'm not keen on the 'she said / he said'. I strive to make the speaker clear from the dialogue's voice as well as the action around it. I don't always succeed. I also use character names to show who is being addressed hence who is listening. 'So Bob, how did you kill him.'

I love dialogue in writing. As a (for now resting) thesp, dialogue features heavily in my work. I love letting the characters loose with speeches / chats / etc. In a play or script, the dialogue gives me clues as to how the character feels. It helps me play the part. Like little sign posts.

And I love reading plays. In my view, plays are story stipped to the minimum. I think we can learn a lot about storytelling and characterisation from reading plays. There isn't any narration to tell us what's happening, just the people in the story showing us the way. I love the interaction between people. To me it reflects life more closely than any narration.

The actor has to be a writer as well, except why should they be?
Back in my acting days, I used to wish I was capable of writing. And now that I do write, I really think that actors ought to get some sort of writing workshopping. Partly because writing helps us understand character progression and character motivation, but also writing is like improvising. And maybe writers ought to take acting classes to help write dialogue?

Carol, I love this thread.
 
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