SOME THOUGHTS ON WRITING DIALOGUE

Written dialogue is not an exact reproduction of actual speech but rather a highly crafted, stylized, conventional form of writing which gives the illusion of spontaneity. It’s very much a matter of rhythm, of not letting sentences or speeches get too long or too perfectly constructed, of not letting people be too articulate. Watch out for having people “talk like a book” – the kind of dialogue that sounds as though they’re reading from a script. Stiff, too perfect, too formal. If they find the perfect word they must seem to stumble upon it. If they ever manage to state exactly what they think or feel, it must be a rare occurrence. If two people in a conversation ever understand each other perfectly, it mustn’t be for long. They each have their own train of thought and their own idea of what the conversation is about, and we (the readers) can read the meanings behind their words and see that their meanings, much of the time, fly halfway to the other person but don’t quite get there. Writing dialogue is a learned skill. Practice helps. It isn’t pure talent, it’s technique.

It is sometimes very tempting to have your character tell someone exactly what’s going on inside her, exactly what’s motivating her actions. (You feel as though this beats having the narrator stop the action and explain the character’s motivations, and you’re probably right.) But if the character spells out precisely what’s driving her to act as she does, this violates probability in several ways. For one thing, people’s actions aren’t always perfectly explainable; for another, people don’t always perfectly understand why they do what they do. On top of this, even if you were aware of every nuance of your inner state, how many people would you tell everything to? And how many would want to listen to all of it? I’m not saying it can never happen; only that it very seldom does.

Screenwriters have a handy term for this sort of self-explanation: they call it “on-the-nose dialogue.” I sometimes use the abbreviation OTND as a marginal comment.

I think it nearly always sounds stiff if people don’t use contractions when they talk (unless they’re saying something with great emphasis). It sounds like speech to me when you say “In my dream I’m expecting a bunch of people for a dinner party in a house that I don’t recognize, plus I’m naked.” It doesn’t quite hit my ear right when you go on to say, “I cannot remember what I have done with the food, either.” It makes a big difference if you write, “I can’t remember what I’ve done with the food, either.”

It seems clunky to write “I paused” in order to make a little time pass in silence in the midst of dialogue. Not that one never can do it. But I think it feels less intrusive if you make the pause happen by filling it up with some gesture, some action, or a reflection — something other than a stage direction.

Punctuation of Dialogue. Rule one: New speaker, new paragraph. Every time. Indent them just like any other paragraph.

Suppose the dialogue is “xxxxxxxxxx” followed by “she said.”

The “she said” is considered an appendage of the dialogue, a continuation of the same sentence, and therefore “she” does not have a capital S.

If “xxxxxxxx” ends with a period, that period is converted to a comma so that it reads

“xxxxxxxxxxxxxx,” she said.

I would explain that comma by saying that the dialogue + “she said” is all one sentence.

If “xxxxxxx” ends with a question mark or exclamation point, you keep that mark of punctuation rather than changing it to a comma, but the “she” is still not capitalized. So it reads

“xxxxxxxxxxx?” she said.

or

“xxxxxxxxxxx!” she said.

The question mark or exclamation point is not followed by a comma. Ever.

In some cases, different from the above, “she said” can begin a sentence of its own, in which case it is capitalized, and the period at the end of the dialogue does not become a comma, as in:

“xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx.” She said the words, as usual, with quiet bitterness.

If the “she said” comes in the middle of a sentence of dialogue — which then continues after “she said” — you have a comma at the end of the first bit of dialogue and a comma after “she said.” Like this:

“The longer I know you,” she said, “the more I realize what a worm you really are.”

What follows “she said” is not a new sentence, so it doesn’t start with a capital letter.

Writers are constantly innovating, but the above represents a reasonable baseline to start from, a set of conventions about presentation of dialogue which will enable the reader to read smoothly and understand how you want it to sound.

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You can download this as a Word document here: thoughts on wtg dialogue

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