Dialogue can be tricky. If you want to make your characters’ conversations sparkle, there is plenty of good advice on the internet.
But first, tidy up basics, like punctuation and speech tags, that can distract from your brilliant banter. This is a checklist to help you dust off your dialogue ready for that final polish that will make it shine.
Spot the Errors
in the following dialogue
“Janet I just hate punctuation lessons”, said John. Janet replied “Not as much as I do John”.
There are several things wrong here.
Punctuation tells your reader how you want them to read the line
- A comma is needed before or after addressing someone in dialogue. (I often forget these myself.) In the examples below, I’ve added them in red.
- In dialogue, the final comma or full stop comes inside the inverted commas. (Quotations can be different, but let’s not complicate matters.) These commas are added in blue below.
- A comma should separate the speech tag and the speech. (hope you can see the green comma in the second sentence).
‘Janet, I just hate punctuation lessons,’ said John.
Janet replied, ‘Not as much as I do, John.’
New speaker, new line
I’ve separated the two speakers in the example above. This makes it easier to keep track of who’s saying what (more on this later).
Over-use of names
The sentences above still sound odd because we hardly ever repeat a person’s name when talking to them. This varies from person to person – in my case, I’ve probably forgotten what their name is – but in general, the better we know someone, the less likely we are to scatter their name throughout the conversation. Once your characters have greeted each other, assume they know who they are and avoid naming them in the conversation.
An exception is when you are scripting fast, interactive repartee and limiting speech tags (more on this later). Then it can be useful to drop a name into the dialogue to remind your reader who is speaking.
English As She Is Spoken
Would you say, ‘I will be going out shopping to buy some bread later’? Then neither should your characters
‘I’ll be shopping for bread later.’
‘I’m going shopping later.’
‘I’ll be going to buy bread later.’
There are any number of permutations, but most will involve a contraction.
Forget about grammar – how would your character say it?
If you know someone who speaks perfect English, it’s probably their second language. In addition, we all have at least two modes of speech: one we use at home and with friends, the other is for formal situations such as interviews. Whichever type of situation your characters find themselves in, their dialogue should sound different from your narrative.
Use dialogue to differentiate your characters. This is easier to say than to do. (I’m still getting to grips with it.)
Accents and dialects can help bring a character to life, but don’t overdo it. Avoid…
You’ve gawn an’ dunnit now – ’e ain’t abaht ter stand fer that.’
Phonetic spellings slow down the reader, and too many apostrophes can be confusing. Choose a sample expression or two to hint at an accent, and use them consistently.
Errs and Ums often crop up in conversation but don’t write them into yours unless you’re making a point about your character (indecisive? searching brain for an excuse?). They contribute nothing and interrupt the flow of your story.
Pauses, however, can convey a character’s hesitation, reluctance, or maybe a change of conversational direction. You can signal a pause with a dash – for an aside, perhaps – or an ellipse if your character’s speech trails off…
Try to make your dialogue look the way you want it to sound. There are few hard and fast rules about this. I avoid colons or semicolons in dialogue because people don’t talk in colons and semicolons, but I might use them if my character were a pedantic sort of person. (That’s just me getting in the mood – I’m not sure a reader would notice.)
If you find yourself changing your dialogue layout several times, get someone to read it out to you. If still unsure, try an internet search; there’s a lot of advice out there.
Us beginners are advised to avoid adverbs and search instead for strong verbs to convey our meaning. However, this fondness for strong verbs doesn’t apply to speech tags.
Speech tags are he said, she said, he asked, she replied… more colourful alternatives are not advised.
The Physically Impossible
Avoid sounds you can’t actually imagine…
‘Oh, James,’ she breathed.
‘You idiot,’ he laughed.
‘Doggie wet,’ gurgled the toddler,
However, that second example will make sense if the punctuation is adjusted….
‘You idiot.’ He laughed.
Alternative Speech Tags
Even physically viable alternatives, such as exclaimed or bellowed, are considered a distraction from the conversation. The theory is that by limiting speech tags to he said, she said, the reader stops noticing the tags and concentrates on the dialogue. (Asked, answered and replied are acceptable too.)
If chosen carefully, the speaker’s words and body language should convey the tone of the exchange. (This is one practical application of that well-worn advice to show, not tell.)
How boring, you may think – and rightly so. Conversations littered with John said, Jane said – even with an occasional said Jane won’t electrify your reader.
But there are strategies to help.
Alternatives to Speech Tags
Avoiding speech tags altogether isn’t as impossible as it sounds.
To and fro-ing
Once you have a conversation going, it is often easy to tell who is speaking as they alternate – this is where it is important to begin a new line for each speaker. The technique works better with shortish responses, and you can drop in an occasional speech tag to ensure the reader doesn’t get lost.
If you describe a little action or body language before your character speaks, it becomes clear who is speaking with no need for a speech tag.
John shook his head. ‘I don’t think she knows what she’s talking about.’
‘She has degrees and everything.’ Jane opened the prospectus. ‘It says here she’s a professor.’
This second example also illustrates a different dialogue issue
If your character is talking too much, you can split up the lecture with some body language – as in the second sentence above. Dense paragraphs of characters speechifying are as boring to read as they are to listen to.
Which brings me neatly back to…
Punctuation and Paragraphs.
Sometimes, you want to split up your character’s speech into more than one paragraph. When this happens, quotation marks should not be closed at the end of the first paragraph. The speech marks should only close at the end of the speech.
However, you do need to begin the following paragraph with an opening speech mark, as in the example below.
‘I’m fed up with bookkeeping,’ said John. ‘I need a break – let’s go to lunch. There’s a new Thai restaurant just opened in the square.
‘Oh, I forgot, you don’t like Thai, do you?’
And that’s a rapid run-through the basics of representing dialogue on the printed page.
Sparkle, though, is something else again.
If you find a formula for sparkling dialogue, please share.