Writing DIALOGUE - Chapter 1

Home » Writing » Writing DIALOGUE » Chapter 1

Writing DIALOGUE

by OokamiKasumi

Libraries: Writing Tutorials

Published on / 1 Chapter(s) / 0 Review(s)

Updated on

Once you know what your characters and doing and saying, how do you get all that down on Paper? (NOT a punctuation article.)

Writing DIALOGUE

DISCLAIMER: As with all advice, take what you can use and throw out the rest. As a multi-published author, I have been taught some fairly rigid rules on what is publishable and what is not. If my rather straight-laced (and occasionally snotty,) advice does not suit your creative style, by all means, IGNORE IT.

 

Getting the Conversation on paper.


Everybody knows that when a new speaker speaks they get a new paragraph, right? In other words, you DON'T put two different people talking in the same paragraph. Okay, yeah, so anyone who has written any kind of fiction learns this pretty darned quick, (usually from their readers.)

What nobody seems to know is that the same goes for a new character's ACTIONS. Seriously, when a new character ACTS they're supposed to get their own paragraph too.

By the way: Dialogue is an ACTION.

Therefore, you don't put two character's Dialogue in the same paragraph BECAUSE you don't mix two characters' actions. Okay?

“Wait a minute, doesn’t that cut everything into tiny bits, you know, when you cut all the dialogue away then divide up all those paragraphs?”

Um… no. You keep Character A’s dialogue WITH Character A’s paragraph of actions. Character B gets his own paragraph of dialogue AND actions.

What you don’t do, is cut all the dialogue away from everything and mash all the different characters’ actions together in one messy paragraph where no one can tell who did what.

“Where the heck did THAT rule come from?”

Strunk & White’s Element’s of Style, the grammar handbook.

To wit…
-- "In dialogue, each speech, even if only a single word, is a paragraph by itself; that is, a new paragraph begins with each change of speaker."

This is often misinterpreted as "Make a new paragraph at every new line of dialogue." Um... No.

The key phrase here is "Change of Speaker".
-- If the Speaker is acting, his actions BELONG in the same paragraph with his dialogue because the Speaker HAS NOT CHANGED.

Which also means:
-- Every time a new character acts, you are changing Speakers - even if they don't talk! Therefore, each new character ACTING gets a New Paragraph, whether or not they have dialogue.

And so…

A character's Dialogue belongs in the Same Paragraph with their Actions BECAUSE when that character speaks, that one character is STILL ACTING.


How this works...

WRONG:
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"You named a stuffed animal?" Toby raised his eyebrows, surprised, and Becky's blush grew brighter, creeping down her neck. < -- Two Characters acting in the same paragraph.]

Becky mumbled, "I wouldn't so much say named, as gave it an identifying word to distinguish it from all the other stuffed cute kitty plushies." < -- this whole line is Abandoned Dialogue.]
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

RIGHT:
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Toby raised his eyebrows, surprised. "You named a stuffed animal?"

Becky's blush grew brighter, creeping down her neck. "I wouldn't so much say named, as gave it an identifying word to distinguish it from all the other stuffed cute kitty plushies."
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

What's Missing?
-- 'Becky mumbled'. < -- This is an unnecessary Dialogue tag. Once you link a character's Dialogue to their corresponding Actions, you no longer need the Dialogue tags.

If you really, really want to add that Becky mumbled her words, describe it as an action. Don't TELL us that she mumbled, SHOW us.

Example:
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Becky's blush grew brighter, creeping down her neck. Her voice dropped to barely a whisper. "I wouldn't so much say named, as gave an identifying word to distinguish it from all the other stuffed cute kitty plushies."
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

-----Original Message-----
"What if the next internals and action/dialogue are his, like:"

"You named a stuffed animal?" Toby raised his eyebrows, surprised, and Becky's blush grew brighter, creeping down her neck. Her reaction was adorable and he couldn't resist needling her some more. "I thought you hated stuffies."

"Then can you lump those actions together?"
-- Thanks in advance -- Jas

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Um... NO.
-- Remember this?

When a new character ACTS they're supposed to get a new paragraph.

"You named a stuffed animal?" Toby raised his eyebrows, surprised, and Becky's blush grew brighter, creeping down her neck. -- Becky is ACTING, so Becky gets her OWN paragraph.

This is incorrect too:

"You named a stuffed animal?" Toby raised his eyebrows, surprised.
-- Toby was surprised so he commented: "You named a stuffed animal?" He didn't comment and THEN become surprised. Actions go BEFORE Reactions, so that becomes this:

Toby raised his eyebrows, surprised. "You named a stuffed animal?"

Original:
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"You named a stuffed animal?" Toby raised his eyebrows, surprised, and Becky's blush grew brighter, creeping down her neck. Her reaction was adorable and he couldn't resist needling her some more. "I thought you hated stuffies."

Adjusted:
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"Toby raised his eyebrows, surprised. You named a stuffed animal?"

Becky's blush grew brighter, creeping down her neck.

Her reaction was so adorable, Toby couldn't resist needling her some more. "I thought you hated stuffies?"


-----Original Message-----
"But when you do that, it looks so...choppy on the page. There's ton's of empty white space!"

Another Example:
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"Don't help me. I'm fine by myself." She told him, not bothering to be polite. He looked surprised and perhaps a little hurt. She heard another voice.

"Geez, you're pretty full of yourself, aren't you?" She got to her feet and brushed herself off, glancing in the direction of the newcomer. She nearly recoiled in shock. Another handsome guy. He crossed his arms over his chest. "He was just trying to help you." He told her. She readjusted her bag and said.

"I don't recall asking for help."
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Once you separate each of your character's actions into new paragraphs and reconnect each character's dialogue to their actions, you won't need dialogue tags such as "said" because your character's actions are the identifiers for your dialogue.

Yes, it looks choppy on the page, but there is absolutely no doubt in anyone’s mind as to who is acting and who is speaking.


With actions separated & dialogue attached.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"Don't help me. I'm fine by myself." She didn’t bother to be polite.

He looked surprised and perhaps a little hurt.

A new voice called out. "Geez, you're pretty full of yourself, aren't you?"

She got to her feet and brushed herself off, glancing in the direction of the newcomer. She nearly recoiled in shock. Another handsome guy.

He crossed his arms over his chest. "He was just trying to help you."

She readjusted her bag. "I don't recall asking for help."
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

If you truly loathe all that white space, then fill it in with more actions, description, and internal narration / observations.

KILL the Dialogue Tags. (Seriously.)

-- When you have an action with a line of dialogue, you don't need Dialogue tags, such as "he said" -- at all. You already know through their actions, WHO is speaking.

Dialogue tags are only ever needed when you don’t have any other way of identifying the speaker.

HOWEVER, if you have no other way of knowing who is speaking than dialogue tags, then you have committed the heinous crime of:

Dialogue in a Vacuum
- Also known as “talking heads syndrome”.

A book with nothing but reams of dialogue marked only by dialogue tags means that there is no action going on, there is no Picture. NOTHING IS HAPPENING. The mental movie has stopped and only the sound-track is playing. Compare it to a Radio Show with no sound effects.

I don’t know about you, but when I go to read a book, I want to SEE what I'm reading like a movie, not listen to a radio show.

Memorize this:

Readers always see what THEY want to see
- unless you SHOW them something else.


What CAN be misunderstood
- WILL be misunderstood.


Leave Nothing to Misinterpretation.
-- Readers will ALWAYS make whatever assumptions come to mind about what they are reading. When a reader realizes that what they thought was going on -- wasn't, they'll get confused.

Unmarked blocks of dialogue is painfully EASY to get lost in.

I remember reading one whole page of un-tagged action-less dialogue only to find out that I had two of the characters reversed. Did I reread that whole page to figure out what was going on? Hell no! I tossed the book across the room. (In fact, it's still on the floor gathering dust bunnies.)

"But, isn't that's what 'said' and other dialogue tags are for?"

Just for the record...
-- Using dialogue tags is Not against the rules. Dialogue tags are a perfectly viable way to identify who is speaking -- it just makes that part of the story BORING. (I don't know about you, but I won't read something that bores me.)

I Despise Dialogue Tags.
-- As far as I'm concerned, reading a million and one "He said..." / "She said..." or remarked, laughed, spoke, gasped...etc., is equally as loathsome as nothing at all.

Anyone that told you that 'said' is invisible (because it's used so much,) LIED! Fiction authors are ALWAYS being lectured by their editors on Not repeating words and phrases. The word 'said' is No Exception.

I utterly Refuse to use Dialogue Tags.
-- I write my dialogue without using "said", unless I am actually describing a change in voice, tone or volume in the same paragraph. And even then I try to avoid them. I use the speaker's actions to define who is speaking to whom.

I use ACTION TAGS.

"What the heck is an Action Tag?"
BODY LANGUAGE

-- Language is Visual not just a bunch of words. Watch the average conversation between two people. 90% of that conversation isn't in what's spoken, it's in what they are DOING as they are speaking. It's in their Body Language. Body-language cues the reader as to what is going on in a character’s head – in ADDITION to dialogue and internal narrative.

Action and body-language tags on dialogue are not just for decoration.

Stories are Mental Movies you play in your imagination. I don't know about you but I HATE to be interrupted when I'm involved in a good movie. If I have to stop and reread a section just to figure out what the heck is going on, I've been interrupted. One too many interruptions and I'm switching to another story -- with no intention of continuing with something that's just too much work to get through.

Action tags keep the mental Movie rolling and the MEANING of what is being said crystal clear. A small simple action can tell you right away what's going through the speaker's head.

Don't just SAY it! ~ SHOW IT!


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
“I love you too.” She rolled her eyes and sighed dramatically. “Oh yes, I truly do love you.”
“I love you too.” She dropped her chin and pouted. “Oh yes, I truly do love you.”
“I love you too.” She glared straight at him. “Oh yes, I truly do love you.”
“I love you too.” She turned away and wiped the tear from her cheek. “Oh yes, I truly do love you.”
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

WHY I loathe the word "said".
- To be perfectly clear, it's not JUST the word 'said', I hate ALL Dialogue Tags inclusively. I utterly refuse to use them.

Why?
- Because they're wasteful. They clutter up dialogue while slowing down actions, and they use up word-count that could be far better used elsewhere.

I don't believe in putting anything in my fiction that isn't useful. If it doesn't add to the character or the plot it gets eradicated. Dialogue tags are too easily replaced by something that actually adds to the story, such as an action, a facial expression, a spot of description, or a character’s opinions.

Truthfully, there is no rule against using them. Dialogue tags are a legitimate form of sentence structure. When there is no other way to identify a speaker, dialogue tags are indeed a viable option.

Just for the record, I write extremely dialogue-heavy fiction. When I find that a dialogue tag is indeed needed in my story to identify who is talking, I see it as a red flag that indicates that all action has come to a screeching halt. Nothing is Happening, other than talking; also known as: Talking Heads Syndrome.

When that happens, I find some way to fill that space with something useful to the story such as an action, a facial expression, a spot of description, or a character’s opinions -- ANYTHING other than a dialogue tag.

Example of my dialogue pattern:
from DIABOLIC


At the very bottom of a hill, before a semi-tumbled stone wall with nothing growing beyond it, Vincent spotted Sephiroth. The dark angel sat on a stone bench with his wings folded tightly leaning back against the trunk of a huge tree with low-hanging branches. His booted foot was perched on the wall before him and his hands were folded on his lap. The world’s greatest calamity appeared to be napping.

Vincent was too royally pissed to give a crap. After spending several hours wandering about in the deserted town, he hadn’t found one living thing beyond the plants and a few small birds. The minor case of sunburn he’d gained from walking around in nothing more than a bed sheet wasn’t helping his temper at all. “Where the hell is this?”

“Mmm…?” The dark angel opened his cat green eyes and yawned, raising his hand to cover his fangs as though in after-thought. “I’d say, about twelve kilometers just off the Western coast at the moment. It changes from day to day.” He waved a hand toward the low wall. “Try not to fall off the edge.”

Huh? Vincent stepped into the tree’s deep shade and leaned over the low stone wall. It was a long way down. The ocean waves were barely ripples. Were they on a mountain top?

The dark angel smiled. “I wouldn’t bother looking for a way to climb down. There isn’t one.”

Vincent watched a cloud come out from beneath them and his brows lifted. “This is floating in mid-air?”

“Correct. At roughly two kilometers above sea level. That changes too, depending on the weather.”

A floating island, and it had to be huge. He’d been wandering all damned morning and this had been his first sight of the edge. “How big is it?”

“Quite large.”

Vincent snorted. How precise. “And it’s uninhabited?”

“Other than the rather abundant plant-life and a handful of birds, I’ve never found anyone, or any thing here, dead or alive.”

Vincent frowned. “This high up, shouldn’t the air be too cold, and too thin for these plants?”

Sephiroth shrugged. “Probably. It’s quite cold and very thin before you cross the wall.”

Vincent watched another cloud ease out from underneath. “Who’s driving this thing?”

“No one that I could find.”

“It’s just wandering about by itself?”

Sephiroth shrugged. “Apparently so.”

“A floating island? I’ve never even heard whispers of it. Who made it?”

Sephiroth scratched his chin and stared off. “No clue, but there are vague mentions of one in the legends about the ancients. The ShinRa library held a complete collection of elder tomes. Fascinating if difficult reading; it’s not written in the current language.”

Vincent turned to stare at him.

Sephiroth’s brows lifted. “What?”

“You … read?”

Sephiroth’s jaw clenched. “I’m a general, of course I read!”

Vincent snorted. “You’re also insane.”

The dark angel looked away and scowled. “I was never insane, my body was.”

Vincent choked on a startled laugh. His body was insane? “Isn’t that an oxymoron?”

Sephiroth turned to look at him, crossed his arms and his voice softened. “Far less so, than you would imagine.”
~~~~~~~~~~~~

By keeping ALL of the actions of one character in the SAME paragraph you don't ever need to use repetitive Dialogue Tags. Use Body-language to SHOW the reader what is going on in a character’s head – in ADDITION to dialogue, internal narrative, and actions.

What about Punctuation for Dialogue?
- Go here: Punctuating Dialogue Read that.

Paragraph Aesthetics


-----Original Message-----
"I suppose the issue I have is with the aesthetics of paragraphing. Though text is not comparable to a visual medium such as film, it is still something that we have to view with our eyes."
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Actually text aesthetics - the way the words appear on the page - seems to be a HUGE bone of contention.

-----Original Message-----
"...The way I see it, your example suggests that I break my text up into a lot of little paragraphs. Given this understanding, in a scene rich with alternating action, it looks like I'll be left with a lot of one-line paragraphs. ...I'd greatly appreciate it if you clarified this situation. I suppose that is the trouble with having to jot down the basics, you can't expand on the little details of the rule. ^_^
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Paragraph Aesthetics - Illustrated
-- The way a story appears on a standard 9.5 x 11 inch piece of paper is not the way to judge whether or not one's paragraphs are too long or too short. A browser page carries even less weight.

Why not?
-- Because Fiction is generally printed on pages HALF the size of a full sheet of paper. What appears to be lots of short little paragraphs on the "internet page" are NOT so short or so little once you put them on the Printed page.

The standard sizes for printed Fiction are paperback (4.25 x 6.75 inches), and trade paperback (5.5 x 8.25 inches -- Hard-cover books use the same size page as a Trade). Only coffee-table books possess printed pages anywhere near the size of a standard sheet of paper.

Standard Paperback 6.75 x 4.25
Trade paperback 5.5 x 8.25
Standard paper 9.5" x 11"

ALL examples are: 12 pt. Times New Roman font with somewhat 1 inch margins.

Personally, I could care less what my text looks like on the page. As far as I'm concerned, making the story as clear and easy to read as possible is far more important than what the text looks like. If I have done my job well, no one will even notice the words - only the story unfolding in their imaginations.

As for internet reading, I'm completely baffeled why anyone would care how it looks on the browser page. All you have to do is narrow the window and the text adjusts.

-----Original Message-----
"Also, I hope you don't mind, but did you come up with the rules yourself, through experience and trial and error, publisher's advice, or is there a handy guide I can employ? Obviously, I quite loyally follow Strunk and White, but I don't think it talks about this subject much. Is there a book that YOU use?"
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

That question has a HUGE answer, believe it or not.

Let's start here:
"...did you come up with the rules yourself, through experience and trial and error, publisher's advice...?"

YES - to all of the above, plus editor hounding and long chats with a number of extremely well-established fiction authors. In addition, I've read a crap-load of how-to books. I'm pretty sure I own, and have practically memorized, just about every book "Writer's Digest" has put out.

I took all the info I'd crammed into my head and condensed it into small bite-sized, chewable, pieces that were easy to remember and much easier to apply. Rather than waste people's time on theory - I focus on application.

As for recommended reads...
-- Unfortunately there is no one guide that shows it all. Not One. However, there are two books I can't praise highly enough. As far as I'm concerned they are VITAL reading for fiction writing.

SCENE & STRUCTURE by Jack. M. Bickham
THE WRITER'S JOURNEY by Christopher Vogler
-- (Google is your friend.)

There are lots of other books I could recommend, but these are the two "Must Haves" if an author really, REALLY wants to write fiction well.

Post your thoughts

Commenting is disabled for guests. Please login to post a comment.