How to deal with dialogue

Writers, especially beginning ones, often struggle with dialogue. There are many aspects to handling dialogue in your writing, including distinguishing between direct quotation and indirect quotation.

Since direct quotations repeat a person’s remarks in their own words without deviation, they require quotation marks; for example: Mary said, “I am ready.”

Indirect quotations, on the other hand, report a speaker’s remarks rather than repeat them; for example: Mary said that she was ready. 

Punctuating dialogue follows the same rules as those with quotations, for what is dialogue but quoting spoken conversation (or sometimes thought) in prose. We discussed the punctuation conventions in the post on mechanical errors with quotation marks, which is number 4 on the Top Twenty Errors list introduced and discussed in this post.

It’s also important to know whether you are following the American vs the British style. Double quotation marks are used in the American style, while a single quotation mark is used in the British style. With this difference, also comes a difference in the placement of punctuation. For instance, the editions of one of my favorite mid-twentieth English authors all follow the British style – using single quotation marks with periods and commas generally after the quotation mark (instead of the American style of  periods and commas generally before the double quotation marks).

There are a number of online guides for punctuating dialogue. In addition, using published works with dialogue as models is another way to follow and learn the format rules. Most writers are avid readers, so paying attention to how dialogue is handled in the works of your favorite books can be fun and instructive.

Handling dialogue is not only about how to punctuate it. As J.H. Mae says, “Dialogue does the heavy-lifting work – carrying details, setting the scene and moving the plot forward” (writingthroughlife.com). Kate Macabe in the series “Writing a Memoir Like a Novel,” expands on Mae’s assertion, adding that dialogue is useful for creating tension and suspense by revealing conflict, as well as revealing motives and other aspects of characterization.  

Indeed, dialogue is primarily a function of character, whether it is used in fiction or non-fiction writing, including memoirs. Both Macabe and Mae appear in articles addressing dialogue in memoir. And as Amber Lea Starfire points out, there is some debate over whether you can put words between quotation marks if you cannot actually quote the speaker verbatim. Yet she goes on to argue that “the first thing to understand and accept about dialogue in memoir is that it can only be an approximation of what was said” (writingthroughlife.com). This echoes concluding words heard on The Moth Radio Hour, broadcasts by the organization promoting storytelling, that the stories are true as remembered and affirmed by the authors.

Dialogue in fiction is also an approximation of real speech, not an exact representation of actual conversation. Real talk can be disjointed, repetitious, and boring, so writers must craft dialogue that is interesting and also revealing of character: it is “one of the most creative and challenging acts you can commit as an author,” assert Browne and King in their book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers.

Ironically, writers are still urged to listen to actual conversations; indeed, Naomi Eppel in The Observation Deck points out that many are notorious eavesdroppers. In this way they are able to learn “the rhythms, the jargon, the concerns” of people (153). Eppel quotes Eudora Welty, who sums up the tension facing authors, as well as the balance they strive for:

“I do not think that you can transfer anything, as it is spoken, onto the page and have it come out at all convincingly.  It has to be absolutely rewritten on the page from the way it happens, but if you didn’t know how it happened, you couldn’t start.”

Finally, an important aspect of dealing with dialogue is to see how it sounds, or to read it aloud so you can hear what works. In a recent blog, we talked about writers reading aloud their work for catching poor grammar, sloppy thinking, missing information, as well as for rhythm and flow and stiffness. (Browne and King suggest other techniques, including reading along with a friend as if it is a play or reading into a recorder and playing it back.)

As when editing any writing, take note of errors or spontaneous changes – these may be clues to better writing and words and phrasing that can be improved. Writers would be wise to follow the advice of John Steinbeck: “Say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of real speech.”

A few more technical points 

Dialogue tags or speaker attributions are used in relating dialogue. Although not true of other time periods, the fashion in contemporary writing fashion is to use simple tags, such as “said” (and sometimes “asked” and “replied”), rather than using more descriptive verbs, such as “mumbled” or “whispered” or “sighed.” Verbs other than “said” tend to draw the attention away from the dialogue and draw attention to the mechanics of writing. In addition, simple tags are more inconspicuous and encourage writers to show character emotions instead of telling them.

Adverbs and tags

As discussed on this post on adverbs, using adverbs can weaken verbs or can prop up a weak verb: “He yelled” is considered stronger than “he yelled angrily.”

Beats

Beats are a description of the physical action made by a character while speaking and can be used to replace said in some places:

“I’d never thought about that before.” Roger walked over to the fridge and helped himself to a soda. “But I suppose . . . .”

Use of dashes and ellipses in dialogue

In a previous post, we discussed the use of dashes and ellipses in dialogue. This illustration by Lisa J. Jacksoncited in this post shows the difference in meaning and intent between the ellipsis and the dash (or em-dash) – it is the difference between trailing off versus an abrupt end or being cut off.

Dialogue: ellipsis vs. em-dash

Trailing off:

ellipsis

“Jonathan, please, what I meant was…”

“What? What did you mean?”

Being cut off:

em-dash

“Jonathan, please, what I meant was—”

“I don’t want to hear your excuses. It’s too late.”

(Examples and materials were derived and adapted from previous blog posts, as well as from writingthroughlife.com, thisnewmountain.com, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, The Observation Deck.)

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