Letting Life Lead
I love dialogue.
Sometimes I will write a scene just so I can use a quippy exchange later.
I adore how you can produce a different pace and evoke feeling with punctuation and well-placed interruptions. Sometimes it can get me into trouble if I have edited heavily to get the right “sound” and I screw up the punctuation.
If you struggle with dialogue, don’t hesitate to write your simple dialogue “bones” then look up the punctuation rules and fix those errors and add flavor later. The more you write dialogue, the better you get at basic punctuation and the more you can play with the tags, the dash, the ellipsis, and interrupting action. Beware the he said-she said tar pits. They can ruin the pacing of your dialogue like too much pepper.
Do you use the characters’ names too much? Use “said” too often? Do a search and replace to highlight or All-Caps the culprits.
Read your dialogue out loud. Is it necessary to say a person is angry if the dialogue sounds angry? Do the words sound right to your ear? A common mistake I see in dialogue is when the sentences are too grammatical — too perfect. Spoken, casual, dialogue isn’t perfect. When we speak we don’t always use long sentences. A lot is implied between speakers. We might say, “I’m off!” or “Later!” In dialogue, if we use proper language and follow written grammatical structure in an exchange between characters, the sound is very formal.
Consider: “Oh, Mother, I am going to the grocery store now.” vs. “Mom! I’m leaving!” vs. “Going shopping! Bye!”
This doesn’t mean formal dialogue doesn’t work and should never be used. It just depends on the context and the character. How would a business woman speak at work? Is it different than when she speaks at home to her kids or her own mother? How about an ancient people who live in a world with two moons? A hermit? A thug. When you choose to make a character sound different (even the choice of words) than the reader expects, they make specific assumptions about the character — so be sure that’s the image you want. We don’t expect the muscle to be articulate, but when she (or he) uses fancy words we can’t help but latch on to that aspect of the character.
Here are examples of how the same/similar words can be read very differently. What does each one make you feel? What is the character feeling/doing (angry, haughty, annoyed, etc)? Is the action fast or slow? Which is your favorite?
“You scruffy-looking nerfherder!”
She said, “You scruffy-looking nerfherder!”
“You scruffy-looking nerfherder!” she said, scrunching up her nose.
She said, “You are a scruffy-looking nerfherder.”
Scrunching up her nose, she said, “You are a scruffy-looking nerfherder.”
She tilted her chin and sneered. “Why, you half-witted, scruffy-looking nerfherder.”
“You, sir,” she said, scrunching up her nose, “are a scruffy-looking nerfherder.”
“You stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy-looking” — she sniffed and crossed her arms — “nerfherder.”
“Why, you are just a, just a . . .” He was such a scoundrel, she thought.
“Who do you think you are?” she said, scrunching up her nose. “You’re nothing but a scruffy-looking nerfherder.”
“You, you”— she poked his chest with a finger —“stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy-looking nerfherder!”
“You half-wit! You, you”— how could she fall for a scoundrel —“scruffy-looking nerfherder!”
This is by no means all the options. Dialogue is funny that way. On the one had there are a lot of rules, but on the other hand it’s very flexible in what you can do with it. Even line spacing or if you choose to incorporate it into a paragraph changes the flavor without changing the words at all.
Are you a dialogue lover or killer?
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Author of suspense novels Search For Maylee, Aggravated Momentum, The Stix, and New Age Lamians. As well as the short story collection Time Wasters and (co-author of) The Suspenseful Collection. Columnist for The Conscious Talk Magazine.
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