I love writing dialogue. It can allow writers to deliver exposition, advance the plot, and, above all, develop our characters. It gives us glimpses into their inner lives and motivations. The things the characters say to each other, and sometimes what they don’t say, provides more insight than simply describing them or *shudder* telling us what they think and feel.
Step One: Punctuation goes inside the quotation marks.*
- “It’s a lovely evening for a stroll,” she said.
- She said, “Where will we go now?”
- “I wonder,” he said, “whether I’ve made a terrible mistake.”
- “You’re wrong,” he said. “I’d never do that!”
- “That’s not true! You’re a liar!”
In example #3, his thought is broken up to let the “I wonder” linger. Since it is not a complete sentence, the tag is followed by a comma before continuing with the rest of his thought. In example #4, “You’re wrong,” is a complete sentence, so the tag ends in a period. A second sentence follows it, completing his thought.
In the last example, I’ve chosen to let the dialogue stand on its own. Adding a “he cried” or “he yelled” wouldn’t provide any new information for the reader; we can tell that he’s yelling already. Unless there is a question about who the speaker is, I tend to use tags every three lines or so. If two people are talking, we can assume that they alternate lines of dialogue.
In conversations with more than two speakers, it can get trickier, but I try to develop distinct voices for each of my characters. That is not to say that unique voices require gimmicks or (god forbid) corny dialect. There’s no reason to go all Huck Finn on your readers. Some of my characters use a specific nickname for each other (Only Lark calls Grimoire “Grim,” for example) or have a particular way of phrasing things. Arthur Lionheart likes to include lots of aphorisms in his speech, and I like to think that he sounds like a somewhat condescending college professor. His sister, Oleander, is a little less pedantic, but she peppers her speech with rules that she makes up to teach Grimoire various lessons.
If a character’s speech goes on for more than a paragraph, the correct way to punctuate it is like this:
However, I think it’s unrealistic to let your characters natter on for more than a paragraph. Unless they’re actually delivering an oration, it’s unlikely that a single character would be allowed to talk for that long without interruption. If you simply must have them make a speech, I’d recommend breaking up the block of text with an action, even if it’s just the person fidgeting or pouring a glass of water. Unless, of course, the point is that the speaker is a blowhard who likes to pontificate long after his audience has stopped listening.
*Please note that grammar rules only apply to American English. If you’re British, well, you’re on your own.
Step Two: Keep it simple.
Nine times out of ten, a simple “said” is the best choice. “Said” is a perfectly serviceable, well-nigh invisible verb that allows you to identify the speaker without intruding on the dialogue. As writers, we have been taught to use robust, active verbs. We don’t litter our writing with listless wases; we employ verbs that leap and dash and spin across the page. In dialogue, however, fancy verbs are often redundant or even distracting.
- “Don’t do that,” she chided.
- “I hate you!” he screamed.
- “That’s what she said,” he retorted
How I hate “retorted,” and yet it sometimes still creeps into my writing. You have to remain vigilant; it’s easy to slip into sloppy habits. One thing that I like to do–and this is a personal preference, not a hard-and-fast rule–is to have one-sentence interludes of action or description in between lines of dialogue.
Step Three: Say it Out Loud.
You can’t hiss consonants. Dana from http://reasoningwithvampires.tumblr.com/, one of the best and most inspirational grammar/writing blogs I’ve seen, has a wonderful archive of terrible dialogue from the Twilight series. Bella & The Gang sigh, growl, hiss, murmur, and mumble their words, but very rarely say anything.
Sometimes you want a character to deliver a particular line, but it doesn’t really sound like something they’d say. I’m a huge Buffy fan, but there’s a scene in the fourth season episode “The Freshman” where Buffy and Willow visit the awesome library at UC Sunnydale. Willow geeks out and talks about how amazing it is, and Buffy quips, “Yeah, it’ll be great…if we ever need a place for the Nuremberg Rallies.” Later in the same episode, she confuses “reconnaissance” with “the Renaissance.” Buffy has many admirable qualities, but she’s not particularly brainy…nor is she particularly dumb. Joss Whedon, who wrote and directed the episode and should have known better, seized the opportunity to make the first joke even though Buffy really isn’t known for her interest in European history (or Nazis). The second joke is more at her expense. Xander might have said it, but not Buffy.
Aaaaand that paragraph probably tells you a lot more about me and my nerdiness than you really needed to know. The point is, not only do you need to develop a unique voice for each of your main characters–and that includes giving some thought to diction as well as the possible depth of their knowledge–you also need to read things out loud to make sure they don’t sound stilted or stupid. Unless you mean for it to sound stilted and stupid, as a stylistic choice. Test it out to make sure it flows nicely. Don’t be afraid to use ellipses (in moderation) and dashes to allow character to trail off or interrupt each other. Conversations in real life are rarely a measured exchange of complete, coherent, grammatically correct sentences. While you don’t want to write exactly the way people talk, I think striving for more authentic speech patterns makes your characters seem more alive.
Bringing It All Together
Here’s an example from my work in progress, The Ghosts of Evergreen:
“When I woke up this morning, it smelled awful, and there was all this ash in the sink,” says Chelsea, her blue eyes wide.
Matt rolls up three slices of bacon inside a pancake and dunks the whole thing in syrup. He gestures with it like a cigar and asks, “Are you gonna turn her in?”
“I don’t know. They’ll probably expel her, and then I’ll feel guilty.”
“Better than getting burned to death in the night by pyrogirl,” says Sara with a shiver.
“You’re right. I’ll tell Sandra tonight after class.”
At my questioning look, Lucy clarifies, “Sandra is the RA on the senior girls’ floor. She’s the Po-Po’s niece—that’s Mrs. Poole—and she’s a total hard-ass.”
I’m not trying to hold this up as a paragon of awesome writing, but I do think that it does some things well. Chelsea is identified as the initial speaker (she’s telling a story about her suitemate, who has a tendency to lock herself in their shared bathroom and set things on fire), and when she responds to a direct question from the other people at the table, I left off the tags because I felt it should be clear that she’s replying to them. This cuts down on clutter. Lucy has a distinctive voice–she uses more slang and cusses a lot more often than her peers, which I think says something about her character.