Let’s Talk: Writing Dialog

Today I want to discuss writing dialog. We’re going to jump straight into it by looking over dialog’s punctuation format. If you you have a piece of dialog followed by he said/she said/a sentence that modifies the talking, AND you intend to use a period to end the talking, you must, instead, use a comma. (In example: “Right, I totally believe you,” Raven said, rolling her eyes.) If you’re using a question mark or an exclamation mark you insert them as usual without a comma of any sort. If the dialog is at the end of the paragraph and there’s nothing after it, you can still end it with a period. (In example: Morgan shoved Devin away. “I said to back away, not come closer.”) HOWEVER, if there is a sentence before the dialog that modifies it, then a comma goes after that modifier. (In example: Britt arched an eyebrow before adding, “It also helps that you’re handsome.”) Crack open the nearest fiction book and look at the dialog pieces for more examples.

Generally speaking, you want to use exclamation marks sparingly in dialog. If the character is shouting, exasperated, or excited the dialog and description should reveal that. Additionally, try to stick to she/he said. Asked is considered a safe dialog verb as well. Things like shrieked, shouted, yelled, sputtered, etc CAN be used as well, but as with exclamation marks they should be used sparingly.

The above rules may seem like killjoys, but it’s for the reader’s sake. Using different verbs for dialog really pulls readers out of the groove. As a society we have been trained to essentially ignore the he/she said tags. When reading a book you’re barely aware of them. The same cannot be said for more colorful verbs.

There is another alternative. If you’re having a conversation between two characters you can chop off the usage of he/she said altogether. In example….

Britt yawned. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I may be bored.”
Merlin glanced up from his paper work. “This winter season has been quiet. You had best enjoy it while it lasts, lass.”
“What do you mean?”
“Spring is nearly here, and all the wretched warmongers will pop out of the ground with the pretty flowers you love so much.”

I never once used he/she said, but you knew who was speaking every time, first because the actions gave away who was talking, and then because of word usage and word order. Some authors use motions/action tags to let you know who is talking, and others use a character’s voice to let you know who is talking. (For instance, Merlin is the only person in King Arthur and Her Knights who calls Britt lass. If my readers see any dialog with the word lass in it they know it’s Merlin.)

OK, so now that you’ve got a basic overview of how dialog is set up, how do you write dialog itself? If you’re serious about writing good dialog you need to become a people watcher. Listen to the way your friends and family talk, then go out and listen to strangers and see what they talk about and how they say it. Each character needs to have a unique voice. An uncultured peasant isn’t going to talk like a King, just as you Great Aunt Ellie isn’t going to sound like the 15-year-old neighbor boy. A typical teenager uses slang, and people say things differently depending where they live and their economical standing. (Is it soda, pop, or coke? Is it a drinking fountain or a bubbler? How about a couch or a sofa?)

Also, your character’s personality should be reflected in what they say. Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice is prideful while his friend, Mr. Bingley, is easy going and amiable. The difference is obvious in the dialog as Mr. Bingley says he finds everything agreeable and Mr. Darcy is typically realistic with  a large dash of criticism. The personality difference should show from character to character, but also between the opposing forces in your story. Your villains must be strikingly different from your heroes. You will never find a group of truly evil villains complimenting each other, or wondering if they’ll find their one true love. Instead they would dwell on conquest and power, and the words they use will be darker.

I’ve barely scratched the surface with this crash course, but hopefully it pointed a few of you budding writers in the right direction. Sorry for the delay in uploading Friday’s post, but thanks for reading!

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