Writing Advice #8: Dialogue Part 1

A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog on MySpace devoted to writing advice for teens. Over time, it evolved into a general blog on writing advice for everyone. I blathered on and on, answered questions, etc. Since then, I’ve pointed people to that blog when they’ve sent me questions on writing, but I know that MySpace isn’t always the most, uh, reliable repository for such things. Plus, if you’re not on MySpace, you can read the blogs, but you can’t comment on them.

So once a week (probably on Wednesdays), I’ll be reprinting my writing advice blogs here on barrylyga.com. I’ll go through and edit them a little bit, too, and I might make some merges/changes, so they won’t be exactly like they were on MySpace, but they’ll hopefully still be helpful to people who are interested.

Here we go!

 


“Hello, blog.”

“Hello, Barry.”

“So, today I’m going to talk about dialogue.”

“Huh. Why?”

“Well, because a couple of people have asked me to, for one thing. And also because it’s really important to writing.”

“Oh. OK. I guess I’ll listen.”

“Dialogue is also a lot of fun when you do it right. Some readers have told me that they like my dialogue a lot, which is cool, so I hope I have something interesting to say here.”

“Well, so far it’s pretty boring.”

“…Right.”

“I mean, we’re several paragraphs in and you haven’t taught us anything yet. That sucks.”

“Oh, really?”

“Yeah.”

“Interesting that you feel that way. Go back and re-read what’s been said so far.”

“Do I have to?”

“Yes.”

“Man! OK…”

“I’ll just sit over here and wait while you–”

“Hey! Keep it down! I’m trying to read over here.”

“Sorry.”

“OK, I’ve read everything so far and I still don’t feel like I’ve learned anything.”

“All right. Why don’t I walk you through it?”

“Yes, why don’t you?”

“No need to get all snarky!”

“Sorry.”

“OK. Here we go… First of all, you’ve learned something about proper formatting of dialogue. Dialogue always goes between quotations marks–”

“I know that!”

“Don’t interrupt! It always goes between quotation marks and whenever a new characters speaks, you start a new paragraph.And, as you’ve just shown us, when a character is cut off, you use an em dash or two hyphens, like this: –”

“This isn’t really–”

“Ah, ah! I’m not done yet! Also, notice that punctuation always goes inside the quotation marks. No matter what.”

“Oh. OK. Yeah, I mess that up sometimes…”

“A lot of new writers do. Oh, and hey, look at what you just did.”

“What? Where?”

“Those three dots you used there where you said ‘I mess that up sometimes…’ That’s an ellipsis. You use that in dialogue when a character sort of trails off. Don’t confuse it with the dash we used above when I was cut off. They’re for two different things.”

“Oh. OK.”

“Now, also note that an ellipsis is only three periods! I see a lot of writers who think that the more periods they throw in there, the more…I don’t know, the more ‘trailed off’ the dialogue seems to be. No! You get three, that’s it. (Unless you’re quoting someone and use the ellipsis to indicate words you’ve removed; then you can go to four if you remove words through the end of a sentence.) It’s also important to note that if a character is going to speak for more than one paragraph, you end the first paragraph without a quotation mark and then start the second one with a quotation mark.

“For example, I’m still talking here. It’s just a new paragraph, is all. You can keep chaining as many paragraphs together as you want and it’s all me talking until you end a paragraph with a quotation mark, like I’m about to do.”

“OK. I got that. But, hey, wait a sec — you just used an ellipsis thingy in the middle of your sentence! Back there in your first paragraph. What the heck is that doing there?”

“Oh, yeah. That. Well, you can use an ellipsis to indicate when a character is pausing to think.”

“Oh, I see how that works. Cool.”

“But look back to the early part of this conversation. There’s all kinds of stuff you can learn from it. For example, notice how I immediately introduced the characters in this little dialogue? You know right off the bat that this is a discussion between Barry and blog.”

“Hey, yeah!”

“And notice what’s missing: There haven’t been any dialogue tags at all.”

“What are dialogue tags?”

“Dialogue tags are those little phrases like ‘he said’ or ‘she asked.’ I haven’t used a single one, but you can still follow the conversation, right?”

“Wow. You’re right. I’m not having any trouble following the conversation at all. How did you do that?”

“Well, we’ll get into the specifics of that next week or maybe the week after. But for right now, here’s a quick explanation: When you write dialogue like I’m doing here, you want to keep things short. That way the back-and-forth rhythm of the conversation helps the reader keep track of who’s saying what. When you have two characters and one of them is teaching the other, it’s pretty easy.”

“But I thought you had to say things like ‘he said.'”

“Nah. In fact, you should only use those tags when you need to, when it’s unclear who’s speaking or when you can milk some mileage out of it. For example, here’s a great little exchange from The Bermudez Triangle by Maureen Johnson:”

“You’re confirmed. The flight’s on time.”

“Great.”

“Nervous?”

“No,” Nina lied.

“Ready to go to dinner?”

“That’s a really cool bit and I love it. By just dropping in that one speech tag, you learn a lot. You learn that Nina is lying, so she IS nervous. And when the next line is about dinner, you learn that the person she’s talking to believed the lie. Pretty cool!”

“Wow. That’s neat!”

“Yeah, that’s just one of the many very cool games you can play with dialogue. But let’s look back to the early part of our conversation.”

“Aren’t we done with that yet?”

“Nah. Look, if you read those early lines, you see something very important. Right from the get-go, you have our relative positions established. My early dialogue signals right away that I’m going to teach something. Your dialogue lets the reader know that you’re here to learn.”

“Hmm. I guess that’s kinda cool…”

“It’s very cool! The dialogue did all of that without saying any of it! Last week I wrote a little bit about Showing and Telling, remember? Well, skillful dialogue is one of the very best ways to Show. I Showed that you are a student and I am a teacher without coming out and saying it.”

“Huh. You’re right. I knew that, but it’s like I knew it without realizing it. Or something.”

“Exactly. It was done so subtly that you weren’t even really aware of it.”

“What else did you sneak in?”

“Well, someone reading this dialogue would also see that you can be snarky sometimes. Based on your early comments and my reactions to them. Go re-read them.”

“Oh. Oh, wow. Yeah. Yeah, I see that. Gee, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be rude.”

“Oh, don’t worry about it. After all, I’m writing both sides of this conversation.”

“That’s right! Why did you make me so rude early on?”

“Just so that I could make this point.”

“Oh.”

“Now, really quickly, I want to point out something else, too: You’ll notice that when I quote something inside dialogue, I use single quotation marks. Like if I wanted to quote my last line of dialogue, I would say, ‘Just so that I could make this point.’ All of the rules of dialogue formatting apply to quoting within your own dialogue — punctuation still lives inside the quotation marks, etc.”

“Got it.”

“Skip a little ways up the page again and re-read that bit where I first asked you to re-read the beginning of the dialogue. Here, I’ll use the magic of the internet and just reproduce it right here for you:”

“Interesting that you feel that way. Go back and re-read what’s been said so far.”
“Do I have to?”
“Yes.”
“Man! OK…”
“I’ll just sit over here and wait while you–”
“Hey! Keep it down! I’m trying to read over here.”
“Sorry.”
“OK, I’ve read everything so far and I still don’t feel like I’ve learned anything.”
“That bit of dialogue shows you something very important. Notice how I managed to indicate the passage of time…entirely in dialogue!”

“Whoa.”

“Whoa, indeed. I talk and you get angry because I’m interrupting you. That tells the reader that you are busy doing something, that an action is in progress, even though the reader can’t see that action. Then you come back and say you’ve read everything. Now the reader knows that more time has passed and that you’ve completed an action. Again, all of this information is communicated without needing to escape from the dialogue to say something like, ‘And then he read the blog entry again.'”

“Cool!”

“Yep! So, what have you learned so far?”

“Well, let’s see. I’ve learned proper formatting of dialogue. I’ve learned that dialogue tags aren’t always necessary, but that sometimes you can use them to communicate a lot of information. I guess we’ll learn more about that later?”

“Yeah. Keep going. What else have you learned?”

“Um… Punctuation… Ellipsis… Em dash… Oh, I know! I learned that you can communicate a lot about characterization and even action and passage of time in dialogue, all without ever stepping outside of the quotation marks!”

“Very good! Anything else?”

“Yeah. I learned that sometimes an author will make a character look like a rude jerk just to make a point.”

“Hmm. All right, then! On that note, we’ll say goodbye. Next week: More dialogue! Say goodbye, blog.”

“Goodbye!”

“See you all next week.”

OK, gang! Feel free to ask questions in the comments. I’ll see y’all again next week!

Comments

  1. Hello, I’ve been reading this blog, and I just wanted to let you know that I read in You Can Write a Novel by James V. Smith, Jr. that using verbs such as “snorted” or “lied” in place of “said” isn’t a good idea. As to why, the author invites the reader to snort the word “yes.” What are your thoughts on this piece of advice?

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