Laissez Faire

Letting Life Lead

Writes and Wrongs #1: Fun with Dialogue Punctuation (#writingtips)

dialogueI 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?

6 comments on “Writes and Wrongs #1: Fun with Dialogue Punctuation (#writingtips)

  1. pauljgies
    February 6, 2016

    I’m a dialog lover. I struggle a little with making each character talk like herself or himself as opposed to like me, but that’s kind of a Zen thing: you just have to be the character while you’re writing the character.

    As to the verb in charge (the said/replied/asserted/pronounced etc.) I go with Elmore Leonard’s rule: just use “said” all the time. I think the reader doesn’t even notice what word you use. Looking at some masters tells a lot (and looking at who I think is a master tells a lot about me)… so, some random Stephen King: said, said, said, replied, asked, said, said (and one no-verb); J. K. Rowling: said, said, croaked, said, said, no verb, said, said; Tolkien: said, said, said, hissed, said, hissed, said, said, said. (The hissing was all from Gollum, in the riddle game.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Laissez Faire
      February 7, 2016

      Not a lot of my characters have speech quirks. I do do it from time to time. I think the thing I do most is actions or sometimes word choice (they might be slightly more formal, or really super casual).

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Big Erik
    February 7, 2016

    I’m not so much a dialogue lover, but I love language and the many ways you can play with it, so I really enjoyed this article. Thanks for sharing it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Laissez Faire
      February 7, 2016

      Glad you liked it. I’ve been having a good time writing. I am trying not to let the lows kill all those writing highs.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Michael
    February 8, 2016

    I love dialogue myself. Especially when I can get a good conversation going in my head and then can transcribe it out. It’s quite fun when a good convo gets going. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Laissez Faire
      February 8, 2016

      Yes! I love it when it all fits and when you can squeeze in a good one-liner. LOL


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