DIALOGUE: BRINGING CHARACTERS TO LIFE

The days of long narratives are in the past. Readers want to be pulled through a story in a character’s point of view. Using dialogue keeps the story dynamic and alive. Some people today recommend that a fiction piece should be at least fifty percent dialogue.

Most importantly, always read your dialogue aloud to see if it sounds authentic. If a sentence is too long and you have to take a breath to finish it, break the sentence up.

The Purposes of Dialogue

  1. Move the story forward
  2. Foreshadow events to come
  3. Give information to the reader and other characters
  4. Reveal character details such as age, social class and upbringing
  5. Reveal character attitude problems by “showing” his mood
  6. Give the reader a better understanding of the characters
  7. Differentiate between characters through speech patterns, attitudes, personality
  8. Separate long pieces of descriptions
  9. Fulfill an objective

Making Dialogue Sound Natural

*Story dialogue needs to sound natural without being completely true to life. Normal conversational dialogue between two people can be filled with interruptions, unfinished sentences, and rushed or garbled comments. To write dialogue exactly that way, your reader would be left in a state of confusion.

  1. Unless a character commonly speaks formally, have him use contractions such as don’t, can’t, shouldn’t, didn’t, won’t.
  2. Occasionally allow characters to speak in broken off sentences or in phrases, but use this cautiously.
  3. Allow characters to interrupt one another. Again, be careful about doing this too often.

Don’ts of Dialogue

  1. Don’t make dialogue just idle chitchat.
  2. Don’t overuse names.
  3. Don’t include unnecessary niceties and formality.  “How are you today, Carol?”
  4. Don’t overuse common speech filler words such as um, like, er, uh, or uh huh.
  5. Don’t use slang or common words from the wrong time period. (wench, my lady, rock and roll)
  6. Don’t have long pieces of dialogue in a character’s speech. People tend to speak in short bursts of words.

Dialogue Tags

  1. Don’t overuse dialogue tags that end in adverbs (telling rather than showing). Instead of “I don’t want to go,” she said angrily. Use something like “I’m not going!”
  2. Using said is often the best as a tag because it doesn’t distract a reader.
  3. Other easy tags that don’t distract a reader: repeated, told, explained, advised and remarked.
  4. If only two characters are talking, only use a dialogue tag the first time a character speaks. The individual characters should be distinguishable by other clues such as mannerisms, facial expressions, etc.

Formatting Dialogue

  1. Start a new paragraph each time a different character speaks.
  2. If a character speaks then performs some kind of action and then speaks again, this can be done in the same paragraph. Such as: “I don’t want to go,” she said, shaking her head. “Why can’t you listen to me?”
  3. If a character must talk for a long time, break it up with actions and pauses.
  4. If a conversation is lengthy, include a name in a tag after every five or six pieces of dialogue so the reader doesn’t forget who is talking.

Punctuating Dialogue

  1. Use a comma between the dialogue and the tag line. “I can get the movie tickets,” she said as she glanced at him working at his desk.
  2. Periods and commas go inside the quotation marks.
  3. Semicolons, question marks, dashes and exclamation points go outside the quotation marks, unless it directly pertains to the material within the quotes. “Do you want me to get the movie tickets?” she asked. (question mark pertains to what is asked) Did she say, “Do you want me to get the movie tickets”? (question mark pertains to the question of ‘Did she say’)
  4. Set off an interrupted tag line by commas. “I can get,” she said, “the movie tickets.”
  5. Set off a quotation within a dialogue with single quotes. “Have you read ‘Atlas Shrugged’?” he asked her.
  6. Use italics for internal dialogue.
  7. If the dialogue is long and goes into a second paragraph, don’t use end quotes at the close of the first paragraph. Use them when the character is done speaking.

© 2010 Starla Kaye

The Smarts

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This website is the work of Starla Criser, an author who has published more than 50 stories, both traditionally and through self-publishing routes.