Ah, summer. The sun's out, the heat is oppressive, and there are UNINVINTED GUESTS in my house. Clearly, the only thing to do is to break out the swimwear and dive into the nitty gritty details of writing at the prose level. It's,
|A badly photoshopped sign using stolen Park Service fonts! No, wait, I mean it's...|
Prose Summer Camp!
Yaaay! Today we're going to be focusing on dialogue. Not how to come up with good dialogue (for that, see this post), but how to actually write the stuff in a way that reads well and makes sense on the page.
Now this might not sound like a big deal, but I can't tell you how many books have been ruined for me by, shall we say, unwise dialogue and dialogue tag choices. Even if the dialogue itself is decent, it's hard to appreciate witty banter when you're trying to figure out how someone can gesticulate a word (are they using Sign Language?). I know that sounds nit picky, but when you're talking about your book, these are your nits to pick. Voice in a book is made up of thousands of nit picky choices just like this.
Choose well, and no one will notice because they'll be too busy paying attention to your characters and plot. Choose poorly, and the little bad decisions will be all your readers notice. It's like a big old scratch in the paint job of a brand new car. Sure it might not actually change how the car runs, but no one wants to buy a new car with a scratch on it. If you're going to sell that thing, it has to look its best, and this kind of attention to detail is one of the ways we get there.
It should also be noted that these sort of decisions are often considered a stylistic writing choice, which means unless you're really murdering the grammar, no copy editor is going to fix them for you. (And if you are murdering the grammar, you shouldn't be depending on a copy editor to fix that in the first place.) You're the writer here. It's up to you to write well, so let's dig into how we do that.
But first, a disclaimer:
**This is how I write. All of the tips below are drawn from my taste and experience as a writer. Some of the rules I lay out below are universal, others are stylistic choices. Either way, if you don't like my writing style, seeing how I make my dialogue choices might not be very useful. This is fine! Everyone writes in their own voice. I hope, of course, that you will still find some it helpful, but please don't take any of this as me setting down the One True Path of Writing. I'm just telling you what works for me in the hopes that it might also work for you. Enjoy responsibly! **
Now that's out of the way, onward to...
Writing Wednesday: How to (Actually) Write Dialogue
Rachel clapped her hands and looked around the virtual room. "Okay," she said, positively vibrating with grammatical excitement. "Let's talk about writing and talking, my two favorite things! Dialogue in text is one of those writing things we assume everyone just knows. After all, we've all read books before, which means we've seen proper dialogue in action. But seeing isn't always understanding. To truly get what's going on, we have to understand why these authors made the dialogue choices they did."
"And I suppose you're going to tell us?"
Rachel looked up in confusion to see Brohomir, Great Seer of the Heartstrikers, sitting at the back of the room, feeding his pigeon from the tray of complementary snack crackers. "What are you doing here?"
"Shameless self-promotion," Bob said with a grin. "The third volume of my adventures comes out August fifth, and I wanted to make sure everyone in your audience knew they could preorder No Good Dragon Goes Unpunished."
"I don't see how they could have missed it," Rachel said, pointing at the long line of announcement posts, tweets, and other various public declarations. "But since you're already here, how would you like to be my example?"
Bob sighed. "Why are you even asking? You're the writer, and I've already foreseen the end of this little mise en scène. Even if I say no, we both know you're going to make me do it anyway."
"But of course," Rachel said with a cruel grin. "That's the price of being a fan favorite. When the author needs people to pay attention, you get pressed into service." Her smirk widened. "Characters exist to be used."
The dragon seer arched an eyebrow. "Careful," he warned. "Your Bethesda is showing."
"Let's get back to the blog post in question," Rachel said quickly, clearing her throat before the evil cackle could escape. "The first thing we need to understand about writing good, well formatted, fun to read dialogue is that all dialogue is still sentences. Obviously, characters will not always speak perfectly correct English, but that doesn't mean quotation marks are magical portals to a world where grammar doesn't matter."
Bob shoved a handful of complementary crackers into his mouth. "I don' kno'bout 'hat," he said with his mouth full. "We tend to 'ay whateber we want."
The author glared balefully. "Perhaps. But as you just so disgustingly proved, writing dialogue that has too much non-standard text meant to represent an accent, inebriation, or impairment can make it very hard to understand is character is saying. This kind of tricks might sound good when you say them out loud, but they tend to be confusing on paper, and confusing text is no fun to read."
"I see," Bob said. "You mean like those Highland Romance novels where the brooding alpha hero is written with such an unintelligibly thick Scottish burr, we can't even tell which part of the heroine he's having trouble committing to today?"
"Yes," Rachel said, astounded. "You read Highland Romances?"
"I'm a dragon of many tastes," Bob said with a mysterious smile. "Not to mention a hopeless romantic." He turned to the pigeon on his shoulder, who still had half a cracker in her beak. "Isn't that right, darling?"
His pigeon cooed happily, and the author quickly decided to get back on target before this impromptu fourth wall breaking character cameo shifted into spoiler territory.
|Hello, my lovely!|
"As we can see, good dialogue has the same requirements as good writing. It needs to be clearly written. It needs to be easy to read. It needs to flow. You need to vary your sentence structure, as I am not doing right now. Except for the part where I just did. See how much of a relief it was to break out of those short, repetitive sentences? That's what I'm talking about. It doesn't matter how eloquent your characters are, their dialogue still needs to follow the rules of good writing if you want it to be nice to read. That said, dialogue writing also has its own special conceits in addition to the normal rules. For example, unless your character is giving an actual speech, you never want to have a block of dialogue text that goes on this long. I mean, this is ridiculous. Can I get some action or an interjection to break me out of this paragraph?"
Bob threw a cracker at the front of the room.
"Thank you," Rachel said, catching the cracker with a relieved sigh.
"As I always tell Julius, it's important to be a gentleman," Bob said with a nod. "And speaking of gentlemanly behavior, I already know the answer to this, but I'll ask anyway for the sake of the audience: Why do you need an action or interjection to break a dialogue paragraph?"
"Because breaking paragraphs in dialogue without them is stupid looking," Rachel said with a shudder. "Here, I'll show you. This is a paragraph of dialogue. Like a normal paragraph, it's usually three to five sentences about a single idea or concept. You can switch that up depending on the needs of the scene, of course, but this is generally how it goes. But what happens when the idea is complete and your character is still talking?
"See?! It just happened right there! With no action outside of the dialogue or interjection from another character, the dialogue just rolled over into a new paragraph without closing the previous quotations. This is how we tell the reader that this new paragraph is still part of the speech. But, because this is still dialogue, I had to open a new set of quotations at the beginning of this paragraph! Do you see how stupid that is?!"
"The only thing I see is a mortal overreacting," Bob said, rolling his eyes. "Why do you care so much? Both paragraphs are still technically correct."
"But the quotations are uneven!" Rachel cried, pulling out her hair. "We've opened two sets but only closed one! That can't happen! Everything must be NEAT UND TIDY!"
"Now you're just insulting the Germans," he said with a sigh. "But you're the author. Clearly, you know best."
"I do," Rachel agreed, getting a hold of herself. "And this is a great chance to talk about expressing emotion in dialogue through italics, bold font, and capitalization."
Bob clapped his hands together. "Splendid! Capitalization is my Favorite Thing, you know. Non-standard punctuation is always the hallmark of Good Breeding and Creativity."
"Maybe for you," she said. "But for us lowly mortal writers, visual dialogue emphasis tricks like these have to be used very sparingly. JUST LIKE TALKING IN ALL CAPS EQUALS SCREAMING ON THE INTERNET, IT READS WAY TOO LOUD IN BOOKS AS WELL."
Bob covered his ears. "Could you not?"
"Sorry," Rachel said, dropping her voice sheepishly. "I was just making a point."
"Well, make it more quietly," the seer grumbled. "Some of us have dragon hearing."
Rachel nodded. "It's not just you. All readers are sensitive to these things, and the more into your book they are, the more sensitive they become. This is why you have to use dramatic emphasis carefully. Not only can it be loud and obnoxious, but if you over use it, you'll lose the effect very quickly. For example, italicizing a word reads like the character is stressing it. This can be very important if you want to show your reader that a particular word is very important to the speaking character. But if you stress every word, the trick loses efficacy and starts to look stupid. So be smart with your emphasis."
"But what if I want to emphasize something very strongly?" Bob asked, thrusting his arm dramatically out in front of him. "Can I use bold italics?"
"You can use anything you want. It's your book. But bold italics read as very dramatic. So much so that I make it a personal rule to use them no more than once per book. The same goes for writing in ALL CAPS, ITALIC CAPS, or any combination of visual typography tricks. I find that, when used only once per book, they can have huge dramatic effect. More than that, though, and the gimmick starts looks like a gimmick. But that's just me. Every author is different. If you like using dramatic emphasis and it fits in your story, go for it. Just know that you're using strong visual spice."
"A sage lesson," Bob said, wiggling his eyebrows. "Get it? Spice? Sage?"
"Oh, I get it."
"I know," he said with a flip of his long hair. "You're such a clever mortal. And speaking of clever mortals, I couldn't help but notice you didn't put tags on either of your previous two bits of dialogue. Is that allowed?"
Rachel scoffed. "Of course it's allowed. We're writers! We do whatever we want."
"Right," Brohomir said, quietly pulling out his ancient brick of a phone to hit his speed dial for the Grammar Police.
"Okay, okay," Rachel said, putting up her hands. "Technically, writers can write whatever they want, but there are definitely some known best practices. It all goes back to what I said at the beginning about dialogue following the rules of normal sentences. This applies to dialogue tags as well. Technically, dialogue tags are a courtesy. So long as the sentences within your quotations are complete, you don't need a tag at all. Without tags, though, it quickly becomes very confusing for your reader to keep track of who's talking."
"And a confused reader is a tragic thing," Bob said sadly.
"Exactly," Rachel said. "If there are only two characters talking back and forth in a scene, or if the dialogue itself makes it obvious who's speaking, you can get away with not having dialogue tags, and many writers do. But if there's any confusion--for example, if you're dealing with more than two characters, or if the flow of back and forth dialogue is broken up by action--then dialogue tags become a vital necessity if you want your reader to follow the flow of conversation. Remember, novels have no visual element. There's no camera showing us who's doing the talking. That's the job of dialogue tags: to tell the reader who is saying what."
"You mean part of the job," Bob argued, rising dramatically from his seat. "Dialogue tags also show movement and emotion."
"That, too," she agreed. "But you have to be careful not to load your tags down too heavily. For example..."
They both jumped as the door flew open, and Bethesda barged into the room. "Why am I being used as the example of what not to do?" she demanded, gesticulating wildly while also stomping in circles, glaring balefully at the author and the seer by turns. "This is beneath my dignity!"
"Because no one's better at being a bad example than you, Mother," Bob said encouragingly. "Just look how well you're doing!"
"This is not what I signed up for when I joined this series!" Bethesda exclimated. "Exclimated isn't even a word." She turned to glare at the author, who was still typing merrily. "What idiocy are you going to have me do next? Shall I sigh my words? Snarl them? Throw them up in the air and slice them with a chef's knife?"
Rachel winced. "Actually, I use growl, snarl, hiss, and other 'bad' dialogue tag words a lot in my books," she admitted sheepishly. "Copy editors are always getting onto me about it, saying I can't have a character hiss an entire sentence. I know they're technically right, but I just like it so much! 'Said' is such a boring word."
"Many novelist who sell far better than you call 'said' the invisible word," Bob said. "It's so common, readers eyes go right over it."
"And that's exactly why I don't like it!" Rachel proclaimed dramatically. "I have a fundamental objection to including anything so boring and common readers don't even see it in my novels."
"But it's very easy to go too far in the other direction," the seer reminded her. "Even for you." His eyes narrowed. "Just like Amelia and her liquor, your dialogue tag abuse problem is well known. Do we need to stage an intervention?"
"No point," Bethesda snarled. "She's been infected with the hack writer's tragic love of the melodramatic. There's no saving her now."
"That's quite enough out of you," Rachel said, shoving Bethesda out of the scene. "Said is a very useful word, and I use it all the time, but that doesn't mean the other, more dramatic dialogue tags don't also have their place. Unlike the invisible, boring, work-a-day said, they add flavor and interest to text. Like any flavor, they can be overdone, but knowing how to balance these things--how to add just enough drama to your tags without tipping over into the constant wild gesticulations of melodrama--is part of the art of writing. There's no magic formula, no right ratio of said-to-non-said tags that creates perfect dialogue. It's all a matter of personal preference as a writer, and I prefer to let my characters growl their lines. I'm writing about dragons, for Pete's sake!"
"I suppose," Bob said with a sigh. "But there are functional limits even for the most creative authors, are there not?"
She nodded. "There are, Like I said, I have no problem with creative dialogue tags like 'growled' or 'snarled' or even 'proclaimed' in the right context, but the word you chose for your dialogue tag still has to be a sound or other verb related to speech, like 'said.' This is because, technically, the dialogue itself is a clause that's dependent upon the dialogue tag's verb and subject. 'She's going to blow!' is a sentence. '"She's going to blow!" screamed the sailor,' is also a sentence, but with a different subject, the screaming sailor. Once added, the dialogue tag becomes the sentence's primary subject and verb. This is why 'screamed' is not capitalized despite the exclamation point in front of it, because the dialogue in question is still part of the same sentence as the verb tag modifying it."
"Are you sure?" Bob asked. "Sounds a bit dodgy to me."
"Quite sure," Rachel said. "You can read all about how and why dialogue punctuation works the way it does here, but the important thing is to remember that it's all just sentences. No matter how dramatic your dialogue gets, the grammar still has to work, which means your dialogue tag has to be a verb that makes sense coming out of someone's mouth. You can agree, postulate, disagree, interrupt, say, argue, growl, snap, or snarl your words, but you can't smile them, smirk them, punch them, or even eat them."
"I disagree," Bob said. "I've made many people eat their words."
"Maybe," the author admitted. "But you still shouldn't talk with your mouthful. Anyway, the point here is that if you're going to use a dialogue verb other than 'said,' it needs to be something that would make sense as sound coming out of your mouth. Certain mouth sound verbs like sighing or huffing are borderline. Technically, they make sense, but lots of editors take great issue with them, so I just avoid them."
"You do?" Bob gasped. "That's news to me. You used the word 'sigh' over four hundred times in No Good Dragon Goes Unpunished. If that's avoiding a word, I'd hate to see what happens when you embrace one."
Rachel sighed. "I'm working on that, okay? Every writer has their pet word. I'd love to use 'sigh' as a dialogue tag because, personally, I sigh whole sentences all the time. But my editors got on to me and got on to me about this for thirteen books, saying you can't sigh (or huff, or spit, or gasp) a word. I disagree, obviously, but I didn't have an argument for any of this other than 'I like it,' so I just adjusted to use those words either as straight up, stand alone sentences modifying dialogue, like you see at the beginning of this paragraph, or--"
"As modifiers on existing tags," Bob said with a sigh. "I see. Seems needlessly clunky to me,"
"I know, right? It would be so much easier to write 'character sighed' instead of injecting an entirely separate sentence of action, like so." Rachel stopped speaking and shook her head with a sigh. "But deciding to listen to one's editors is also an authorial choice," she continued. "Usually a good one. Just because something sounds good to you doesn't mean it's correct."
"Right," Bob said, looking down at the spot on his wrist where his watch would be if he'd been wearing one. "Not that this hasn't been educational, but the post is running a bit long and some of us have places to be. Vast and complicated plots don't put themselves into motion, you know. Anything else you'd like to add before we wrap up before we go?"
"Just one," Rachel said, turning to look at the invisible camera for the ultimate fourth wall break.
"A fourth wall break inside a fourth wall break?" Bob cried. "That's sixteen walls!"
"Too soon," she warned, shaking her head. "Stick to something more universal, like Star Wars references."
"Maybe they'll think I made it up," Bob said hopefully.
"Anyway," Rachel said, moving on. "For the authors in the audience, I hope this dramatic example of dialogue in action helps you in your writing, and for the Heartstriker fans, the No Good Dragon Goes Unpunished ebook comes out August 5th with audio and print editions out only a few weeks behind! If you liked the first two books in the series, you're going to love this one."
"And if you haven't read the first two books in the series yet, why not?" Bob asked. "Don't you want to get all the inside jokes in this post? They only cost $4.99 in ebook! You could own the entire series so far for less than you'd spend on the coffee you'd drink staying up all night to read them."
Rachel put up her hands. "Whoa! That's coming on a little hard, don't you think?"
"Absolutely not," Bob said, plucking his pigeon off his shoulder and gently cradling her in his hands. "Do it for my pigeon. She's got her big reveal coming up in this book, and if you miss it, the regret will be brutal. We're talking nights spent crying into your pillow. I don't even want to think about it. So preorder now! The life you save might be your own."
"Riiiiiiiigh," Rachel said, stepping away. "And on that note, we're done. Thank you as always for reading, and I hope you found this helpful. As always, please remember that all of the above is my opinion. You are your own writer. If you want to write dialogue using nothing but said, go for it."
"I want you to know how hard I'm resisting the urge to make a 'That's what she said' joke," Bob said, cutting in again. "Remember, buy our books!"
Rachel tried to get a word in edge-wise, but the post was over. The obligatory social media links to Twitter/Facebook/Tumblr/Google+ were already scrolling by, leaving her no choice but to hope readers remembered that new business and craft posts went up every Monday and Wednesday and that they wouldn't be put off by the blatant commercialism of her up coming book launch. As the paragraph went on, Rachel realized things were becoming dangerously meta, and so she scampered back to her actual copy editing work with a final shout of thanks to her readers, who were undoubtedly sick of the gimmick that had dragged on far, far too long.
Maybe they would leave their opinions in the comments below? Or even better, suggestions for what kind of prose subject they'd like to see her tackle next? Rachel could only hope that--
Bob stomped back into the post and grabbed the author from the keyboard. "GO EDIT YOUR BOOK!" he roared, reaching for the ethernet cable.
"Thanks for reading!" Rachel cried one last time before the internet cut out and she was sent back to the word mines.