Lesson: it’s really worth brushing up on your dialogue-writing skills.
Why is dialogue so important? It’s fast moving, keeping readers engaged where long chunks of text will lose them. Dialogue visually breaks up a page, adding necessary white space. Writers can use dialogue to efficiently deliver exposition. Dialogue reveals character better than description, and often better than action. Dialogue is, when done correctly, fun to read. And if you don’t have a knack for it, never fear: it’s not magic. It’s a skill that improves with study and practice. The easiest thing to get wrong is also the simplest thing to fix: formatting. Hardly any articles, blog posts, or book chapters on writing deal with the mechanics of dialogue, which is a shame. Because very few beginning writers get it right — and they’re going to get rejected by agents. Let’s fix that.
“You’re formatting this dialogue incorrectly.”
She said: “You’re formatting this dialogue incorrectly.”
She said, “You’re formatting this dialogue incorrectly.”
“You’re formatting this dialogue incorrectly,” she said.
Keep dialogue on the same line as the dialogue tag. (“Dialogue tag” is the “he said” part — more on this later.) See how the first example above had a paragraph return between the tag and the quote? That’s incorrect. Furthermore, do not use colons in your tags, and avoid starting with the tag. Note the final, “best” example. The speech ends with 1. a comma, 2. a close-quotation mark, and 3. a lowercase “she said.” This is the default, at least for American English. This is what you should be doing most of the time; obviously there are exceptions to these rules. Don’t think you can get away with the exceptions, though, until you’ve understood and mastered the rules. If you think you’ve mastered them already, do a quick check. I mean, really, right now: go look. Find a section of your own dialogue and note whether you are mostly sticking to the default — and when you have departed from it, ask yourself if you did so deliberately and consciously for a particular effect. Based on the number of first drafts I have looked over, and based on my own learning curve, I’d guess there’s some brushing up to be done.
Many dialogue rules are picked up intuitively by writers who do a lot of reading. If you are getting feedback that you’re formatting incorrectly, you may not be reading enough, or you may be reading stories with bad dialogue. I find the best way to train my writerly intuition is not to study the formal rules, but to find writers who do it well and literally copy them: pick up a book by one of these authors and copy out dialogue-intensive passages. I will continue to repeat this advice, because I truly believe transcribing is one of the best tools to improve your fiction. Transcribing is an exercise that rewires your writing brain on a level much deeper than rule-memorizing will ever do.
The use and abuse of dialogue tags, beyond what I discuss above, is more subject to controversy. First, there’s the question of “said.” Most editors agree that this tag is preferable to any other tag, such as “shouted” or “sighed.” This latter kind of tag is called a said bookism, and editors hate those. Unfortunately, elementary-school teachers have for decades instructed students to avoid “said” and instead use bookisms, so a lot of us have to be retrained to go back to good old “said.” The reason editors recommend “said” is that it is less colorful: bookisms are terribly distracting, and interrupt the flow of dialogue. You can use them occasionally to break up the steady march of “he saids,” but you want “said” to predominate.
Almost as loathed as said bookisms are adverbial dialogue tags: “Take that!” she said scornfully. This is one I have a harder time avoiding, as I do love me my adverbs. We are told time and time again to keep our adverbs to a minimum, but they keep creeping back into tags — at least, into mine. Often these tags are redundant, as we can tell from the context how the speaker is speaking. If you don’t think it’s clear, consider finding another way to evoke the mood.
“You can also leave off tags entirely.”
“How do you know who’s speaking, then?”
“Let readers sort it out from context.”
It’s fine to skip tags occasionally when you’ve got a long page of dialogue; you don’t need “he said” after every line. Some schools of thought go further and treat tags as if they were volatile little bombs: icky things you use only when absolutely necessary. You know these authors: you flip open a book and it’s just this endless wall of dialogue. You have to go back three pages to sort out who’s speaking, and then count lines to keep track. Cormac McCarthy not only does this, but foregoes quotation marks altogether. Hint: unless you are Cormac McCarthy, do not write dialogue like Cormac McCarthy. Use dialogue tags. And punctuation.
“So,” said Mrs. McKowen, “have you met the birth mother?”
“Yes,” said Sarah.
“And you’re sure you want that woman’s child?”
Edward began to cough. “Excuse me—is there a bathroom I might use?”
“Why do you say that about the birth mom?” asked Sarah.
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Mrs. McKowen. “I guess, well, the lady’s not the sharpest tool in the shed.”
In the first sentence, we see how Moore uses the dialogue tag in the middle of the sentence: this is my own preferred way to tag, at least for dialogue that’s longer than a dozen words or so. The second speaker, Sarah, has the default tag: statement, followed with a comma and simple “she said.” Edward arrives on the scene without a true dialogue tag, but rather introductory action: he does something on the same line as his dialogue, so we know he is the speaker: this is another good dialogue option, which you can use more frequently as the defaults become automatic for you. (Use a period, not a comma, in this construction.)
When Sarah speaks again, she gets the tag “asked Sarah” because it’s a question: notice that “asked” is lowercase. Many writers understand that “he said” is lowercase because they see the comma, but when there’s a question mark they mistakenly revert to capitalization. However, the formatting remains as if it were a comma: remember your defaults, which here is, “use lowercase with dialogue tags.”
Finally, the last line repeats the middle-of-the-sentence dialogue tag, with the default “she said” but in reverse. “Said” should generally be the second word in a tag, not first, but you can use this construction for variety.
Variety. Look how well Moore plays with the default. She shifts her tags around from beginning, to middle, to end, and back. Why? Because of flow. If you always place your dialogue tags at the end, your dialogue can sound programmed and monotonous. The default is a good one: dialogue tags at the end, stick with “he said,” but Moore shows how variation can ensure flow.
If you feel overwhelmed by the technicality of this explanation, don’t worry. You will pick it up intuitively if you study good dialogue. Remember, though, that you’ll get much more out of the masters if you copy out their work, word by word and comma by comma, than if you simply read it.
“I was thinking, um, that, well, maybe, you know—” The writer fiddled with her earrings.
The editor scowled. “Get to the point!”
“But this is, like, kinda, how people—how people, actually, you know, talk.”
“That nice,” he said. “But it’s not how writers should write.”
Drilling further down into style: There’s an irony of writing good dialogue, in that the most natural-sounding written dialogue is not much like actual speech. Read an exact transcript from a radio or television interview to see what I mean: note all the stammers, ums, self-interruptions, start-overs, and banalities. When I was a journalist and did interviews, I had to clean this sort of thing up for the final product; all journalists do this, which is why you don’t see “uhhh” and “I mean” in written interviews. You don’t see the stops and starts as the interviewee finds her point. This is even truer for fictional dialogue: Your characters should speak more economically than people actually do. The flipside of this is that dialogue shouldn’t be too clean. The grammar in dialogue can be incorrect, and should be incorrect when that’s true to your character. You can get away with “gonna” and “woulda” in dialogue; you can say, “Me and her gone shopping” if that’s how your character — say, a three-year-old — would speak. You clean up the distractions, the ums and stumbles; you don’t hide personality, age, or education. Here’s an example from John Steinbeck’s novel “Of Mice and Men”:
“Aw Lennie!” George put his hand on Lennie's shoulder. “I ain't takin' it away jus' for meanness. That mouse ain't fresh, Lennie; and besides, you've broke it pettin' it. You get another mouse that's fresh and I'll let you keep it a little while.”
George is a migrant worker with little formal education. Note that while his grammar is true to his character, Steinbeck has kept his speech economical. No unnecessary words are used. (Bonus points if you noticed that Steinbeck does not use a formal dialogue tag here, but uses a line of action to indicate the speaker, as Lorrie Moore had her character Edward do in the earlier excerpt.)
Not exactly Steinbeck, but really. Is this not fabulous dialogue?
“Oh, Charlie!” Mrs. DePaul was a stout woman with an impulsive heart, and Charlie’s plaint struck at her holiday mood as if she had been caught in a cloudburst. “I do wish we could share our Christmas dinner with you, you know,” she said. “I come from Vermont, you know, and when I was a child, you know, we always used to have a great many people at our table. The mailman, you know, and the schoolteacher, and just anybody who didn’t have any family of their own, you know, and I wish we could share our dinner with you the way we used to, you know, and I don’t see any reason why we can’t.”
“I don’t know. It just started shuddering and then steam —” I began.
“Eee, cabron, I told you she was a girl!” the woman shouted at her husband, interrupting. “Sorry, mija,” she added to me. The man stepped back, looked me over skeptically, shrugged, then went back under the hood.
Ready to drill a little deeper? The next step is to get your dialogue to perform multiple functions. In the above excerpt, from one of my works-in-progress, the viewpoint character is dealing with a broken-down car, and the dialogue appears to be focused on that. But if I did it right, I also let the reader know that this setting is not your typical American setting and that the point-of-view character is a girl who looks like a boy. We also can see that in spite of being a tomboy, the viewpoint character doesn’t know cars, that the shouting woman is kinder to strangers than she is to her husband, and that the husband is not much of a talker. My intention was to pack a lot of information into a small bit of dialogue—without the reader noticing what I was doing.
Your characters will sound wooden if you give their dialogue only one job, especially if that job is “transfer info to reader.” Your characters are not robots. They are, or should seem like, real people. They need dimension. As your character delivers plot information to the reader, she should also be delivering other subtextual information, such as her personality (is she bubbly? Clipped?), her relationship with the person to whom she’s speaking (does she love him? Fear him?), and her reaction to the events around her (is she excited? Bored?). As you add these layers, you’re going to find yourself excited at how real your dialogue suddenly sounds. Your characters will have more life than you’ve ever given them. One exercise you can do right now is to look over a few pages of your dialogue and rework it to reflect the speaker’s unique personality. Look at the Moore excerpt above: See what Edward is doing? He coughs, then tries to flee the room. He is startled by the previous comment, and uncomfortable with conflict. We learn a lot about Edward from this tiny bit of dialogue.
As much as I’ve covered here, I’ve only touched on the basics of writing dialogue. Entire books are written on the subject; courses are taught. You can read the books, you can sign up for the courses; you can memorize everything I’ve written here. But if you want to write dialogue that sings, that will grab the attention of every agent out there, read the works of excellent writers. Read closely. Transcribe, and while copying out their work, notice what they are doing. Think about what they were thinking about when they chose those words. Smoke that stuff, get it into your bloodstream, into your DNA, and it will become your own. You’ll have the skills to let your own voice — what is uniquely yours — come through.
|Jan Švankmajer, "Dimensions in Dialogue"|