Conversations and Punctuation

Dialogue adds interest for the reader and helps to bring them into the story, almost as if they were an invisible bystander in a conversation. It also helps to break up what could be dreary paragraphs of narrative that could be a turnoff after a while.

Using a conversation helps to show, rather than tell, what the characters are feeling. So, great! Why not use some dialogue to perk up the story? But be sure to do it right, or your reader will give up in disgust.

Some basic punctuation rules will help to make your dialogue look professional.

First of all, think of your dialogue as a sentence just like any other with a capital letter at the beginning and a period at the end.

Second, we want to show which words the person said. These go between double quotation marks.

“You sure are bossy,” Joe said.

The part that is inside the quotation marks is like a sentence within a sentence, but instead of a period at the end of what he said, we put a comma, or a question mark if it is warranted. These go INSIDE the closing quotation marks.

If there is a quotation inside a quotation, you would use single quotation marks to show that.

“Did he say ‘You sure are bossy’?” Darryl asked.

Supposing Joe had more to say, and wants to continue his sentence. The dialogue tag (Joe said) interrupts the words he is speaking, so we use a comma to separate it from the spoken words and no capital letter is needed to continue the words he spoke .

“I’ve asked you three times already,” Joe said, “if you’d like to go to the movies with me.”

However, if Joe has two or more sentences to say, we must treat them just like any other sentences, separated by a period.

“I’ve asked you three times already,” Joe said. “That tells me you don’t want to come with me. Why didn’t you just say so?”

If you are trying to show that the character is thinking some words, these are put into italics and not within quotation marks.

“I’ve asked you three times to come to the movies with me,” Joe said. I guess that should have told me she doesn’t want to go.

If you have dialogue at the end of a paragraph and perhaps the speaker is changing the subject, so you want to start a new paragraph as he continues to speak, you leave off the final quotation marks but begin the new paragraph with quotation marks. This way we know it is still the same speaker. If it is a new speaker, we put the closing quotation marks on the sentence before beginning a new quotation.

“I painted the house since you were gone,” Joe said. “I hope you like it.

“By the way, would you like to come to the movies with me tonight?” he added.

Also, notice that no capital is used to begin the dialogue tag (he added) after the quotation, unless it is a person’s name, of course.

“I hope this helps you with your punctuation,” Anneli said, “especially in the case of a sentence interrupted by a dialogue tag.” I wonder what they’ll think. Will they leave a comment to tell me?

Dialogue – He said, she said

Why do we use dialogue in novels when it could all be done with prose? The benefits of using dialogue:.

  • It brings an engaging immediacy to the scene. You feel you are right there with the characters, involved in their conversation.
  • The dialect, choice of vocabulary, and the tone can reveal a person’s characteristics in a more interesting way than a wordy description could.
  • Dialogue can be a tool for advancing the plot, especially if  inner conflict is woven into the spoken conversation.

Some tips about using dialogue:

  • Use short snappy dialogue when appropriate. It heightens the tension.
  • People don’t normally use long sentences in conversation. They more often speak in fragments and phrases.
  • Speakers don’t repeat what the other person just said.
  • Don’t use it as an all-too-obvious way to pass on information in a way that the person normally would not do. (E.g., “Don’t yell at Henry. He’s only two years old and he’s our only boy.” Painfully obvious information forced into the story.)

Dialogue tags:

  • These are the words that tell the reader who is speaking. They can be a distraction or even an annoyance if belaboured. The “he said/she said” part of the sentence should be like punctuation; it’s very important, but shouldn’t stand out or be noticed. Fancy dialogue tags like argued, insisted, responded, inquired, questioned, and replied are an unnecessary distraction. In most cases, said and asked are all you need.
  • Having said that, try to limit your use of dialogue tags. Often if you precede or follow the dialogue with an action by the speaker, we know who is speaking. (E.g., Sam pointed at the ball. “Go fetch.”)
  • If your speaker is grimacing or laughing, be sure that this is occurring in its own sentence, not as part of a dialogue tag.

Examples:

Wrong – “That’s so funny,” Sam laughed.

Right – “That’s so funny.” Sam laughed.

The period, instead of the comma makes all the difference. In most cases, though, the action should come before the dialogue.

Combining actions with dialogue:

  • Be careful how you handle this one. I see this done very often. Here is the pattern: “How are you?’ she asked, gazing at his eyes. When I peruse a book that I’m considering reading, I look for use of gerunds behind dialogue tags. If I see more than the occasional one, I’m already turned off. This kind of pattern stands out in a novel and can become irritating when you know that each set of quotation marks will be followed by the gerund pattern.

Here are some examples: “Pleased to meet you,” George said, pumping my hand up and down. “I’ll be right back,” David said, running down the street. “Give those back,” he said, grabbing at the candies. “It already looks irritating to me,” Anneli said, going on to a different book.

Conclusion:

Dialogue can be an effective tool to make your novel more readable and engaging. It’s definitely a skill worth working on. Watch for examples of dialogue in novels. Do they work? What are the faults, if any, in the writing of the dialogue? Take some bad examples you find and see if you can make them more effective. When you know how to use dialogue to your advantage you’ll find that the quality of writing in your novel improves greatly.

 But best of all, writing dialogue can be fun, especially when your characters, saying what they would naturally say, steer the conversation in a direction you hadn’t intended it to go. So watch out for those characters with a mind of their own, but have fun chatting.

Anneli Purchase is a published author who works with writers to bring out their best. She is a freelance copy-editor providing services that include correcting spelling, punctuation, word usage, sentence structure and balance, and many other aspects of writing. To find out more about Anneli, go to her website at http://www.anneli-purchase.com/.

Have you ever struggled with writing dialogue?

Has your dialogue ever sent your storyline off in a different direction from what you had planned?

Please feel free to leave a comment. We’d love to hear what you think.

Don’t Always Believe What You Read Online

I reblogged this from Luanne Castle’s site with her permission. It deals with an aspect of writing that is important to me both as a writer and a reader. Thank you for writing this post, Luanne!

 

Luanne Castle's Writer Site

When I started writing creative nonfiction/memoir, the issue of dialogue tags rose its nasty little head early on. I’d never given them much thought in fiction writing, and they don’t exist in poetry. For some reason, nonfiction made me think and rethink what works best. Maybe it’s that more expressive word choices conveyed more information than plain old “said,” but in nonfiction it seemed like overkill to write “stammered” or “giggled” about oneself.

These “more expressive” tags look something like this:

Eventually I took courses online and learned that all the creative and imaginative tags I’d debated were worthless. I think these teachers were right, so I’m sharing what I learned from them.

The idea is to stay as far from “tagging” as possible.

That means that if you can write dialogue where it’s clear who is speaking each line, you don’t need any tags at all. Sometimes you can start…

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