Tips for your Tales: Dialogue #1

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Tips for Dialogue (A.K.A Lesson #1 The Basics)

Dialogue is something a lot of people struggle with. It’s something I struggle with endlessly. I won’t claim to be any kind of expert on the subject, but through four years of undergraduate Creative Writing in two countries and a year on a Crime Writing MA, I have picked up a few handy tips.

Today’s segment is going to focus on what I’d call The Basics – but what others might call the “I’ll fix that later” or the “It’s Not That Important”. Yes, it kind of includes a bit of grammar. So, shoot me! But I think that once you get the foundations right and solid, it’s much easier to build upwards successfully.

How to Properly Punctuate Your Dialogue

This is something I see quite a lot (and indeed is something I struggled with for a while myself). A lot of people don’t really understand how to punctuate their dialogue. Does a comma go there – or a period? What about that capital letter, is that right? I don’t know because who the hell pays attention to this stuff??

So here I’ll do my best to explain:

#1: In your story, Bobby wants to tell Lucy he’ll see her later. How do you put that into speech? Where do you put your periods, your commas and your capital letters?

  • Quite often I would see this: “I’ll see you later.He said. But this is incorrect. You have to think of your dialogue tags (or your ‘he said’ ‘she whispered’ etc) as part of the sentence in which the speech occurs. Try reading it aloud to yourself – read it as though the speech marks aren’t there and note the pause where you’ve put that period. I’ll see you later. [PAUSE] He said. (He said what???)
    • Instead, try this: “I’ll see you later,he said.
      • Notice how this time you don’t pause so long after the speech and the sentence (from “I’ll” to “said”) flows seamlessly. I’ll see you later, he said.
    • And because we see the whole thing as one long sentence, you don’t need to capitalise the H in he, either. If you’re not using a period, you’re not using a capital letter either.
    • Our eye is then drawn to the dialogue (where it should be) instead of the dialogue tag (which should be virtually invisible).

So how does this look in a longer sentence, with more description after the dialogue?

  • “I’ll see you later,” Bobby said as he tossed his school bag over his shoulder.
    • If this were punctuated incorrectly, you’d be inclined to think that “Bobby said as he tossed his school bag over his shoulder” was a full sentence. Which it isn’t.
      • I’ll see you later, Bobby said as he tossed his school bag over his shoulder vs. I’ll see you later. Bobby said as he tossed his should bag over his shoulder.
      • You see the difference that makes and how much better it flows with a comma instead?

See? It’s easy. The rule applies whenever you have a dialogue tag in which you express the way the words are being spoken. So whether it’s “I’d really love to go to the dance with you Jimmy,” Alison said or “I’d rather be seen wearing a One Direction shirt than go to the dance with you!” exclaimed Jimmy, hurling his iced tea to the pavement the same principle applies.

Ah, but Fran, you used an exclamation mark in that last one. That’s a bit confusing!

    • So what do we do when we have dialogue that has exclamation marks or question marks? Well, the same sort of thing applies. Although instead of using a comma, you keep your exclamation mark at the end and simply make sure your dialogue tag starts with a lowercase letter (unless it’s a name). Question marks and exclamation marks essentially become invisible.
      • So instead of, “I hate you!” Shouted Danny (I hate you! [PAUSE] Shouted Danny) you have: “I hate you!” shouted Danny (I hate you! shouted Danny).
    • It’s a subtle difference, but once you start noticing it you’ll probably realise that it does alter the way you read your dialogue.

#2: So what about when two pieces of dialogue flank a character action? How does that one work?

  • If I wanted Jimmy to tell Alison he won’t go to the dance, then throw his tea on the floor, and then explain that he’s already going with Mark – how would I do that?
    • Well, the best way is for me to show you: “I’d rather be seen wearing a One Direction shirt than go to the dance with you!” exclaimed Jimmy, hurling his iced tea to the pavement. “Anyway, I’m already going with Mark.”
    • Here there are essentially two ways to do this, and it’s entirely up to you which way you choose. But what it comes down to is: Are your two bits of dialogue the same sentence (as spoken by the character) said in the same breath? Or are they two different thoughts, separated by a pause?
      • The demonstration above is an example where the two bits of dialogue are separate. I don’t want to go to the dance with Alison. I’m actually going with Mark. So what you do is the same as before: Dialogue ends with punctuation and lowercase dialogue tag. Jimmy throws his drink to the ground. Then we have a period, because that’s the end of that bit of dialogue. And then we start the next bit of dialogue as a new sentence. Make sense?
    • The other option is when a character continues a thought while the action is happening. For example Jimmy is pulling at his hat nervously while taking to Mark: “Mark, will you please swear to me,” Jimmy whispered, pulling his hat down over his ears, “that you won’t tell anybody about that thing with Alison?”
      • The big difference here is the way that the action between bits of dialogue is punctuated. The first bit of dialogue is ended with a comma (or exclamation mark etc) and a lowercase speech tag as before, but since the dialogue then continues in the same breath, instead of the tag/action ending in a period it ends in a comma – and the dialogue continues as though it has never been interrupted.

#3 But what if I don’t want to use a dialogue tag? What if an action is enough to end this speech?

  • This is another common way to finish off dialogue. What if you’ve used said enough, and you don’t want your characters whispering or yelling or snorting their words? Well, you could just have something like this: “I’ve had enough of this rubbish.” Dana turned off her computer.
    • Here the dialogue and the action are linked – presumably Dana is turning off her computer because she’s had enough of this rubbish. So, because we don’t have a “she said” on the end, you can end your dialogue with a period (or question mark or exclamation mark), and then start the post-dialogue action with a capital letter. I’ve had enough of this rubbish [, she said]. Dana turned off her computer. Dana turning off the computer is not a VERBAL response, therefore we don’t do the comma/lowercase thing.
    • Here’s another one: “Sarah, will you sort out your washing later?” Her mum was pacing again. “It’s driving me up the wall.”

When it comes down to it, punctuating dialogue is a lot like punctuating normal sentences – and that’s the trick. Imagine where a period or a comma might go if the speech marks weren’t there, and usually you can tell what to do.

But if you ever have any questions, feel free to ask! Hopefully this has cleared up some issues for some people. Have fun with you dialogue, and don’t panic. Soon this will be second-nature to you and you’ll do it without thinking about it.

As always, let me know in the comments if you need anything clarifying or if you’ve got other tips on how to do it (or requests for other tips!)

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