Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Writing Wednesday: Punctuation and Dialogue

Okay, so this came to my attention this week in stark relief as I read a book for review that had oodles of errors. Somehow, an earlier version of the manuscript got uploaded to Amazon for Kindle and whoa, Nellie! The punctuation mistakes totally drove me insane.

A few years ago, I was doing a lot of editing for writers working on first books and realized most new writers have trouble writing dialogue, not just the punctuation. I wrote a column about it which I'm posting below, but then just this morning I followed a link posted by a friend to Chuck Wendig's RANT at the terrible minds blog that includes a rant on the same subject (including the rules for proper punctuation) - and he is much funnier than I am and not concerned with offending anyone.

But I'm posting mine anyway.

The Write Way: Getting Your Dialogue to Flow
by Katie O'Sullivan, first published in CapeWomenOnline magazine, Winter 2013 issue

Have you ever read a book and thought, "Do real people ever talk like that?" Have you ever been reading a chapter and suddenly can't figure out which character is speaking?

I've heard questions from a few people about writing good dialogue, and thought I'd focus on a few basics in my column.

Some authors find it easy to write dialogue, other find the concept difficult to master. As with anything in writing, practice is important. To master dialogue, however, you also need to be an avid reader. Take note of how other authors deal with conversations, and how the styles vary, and then try it with your own characters.

Here are a few basic tips to help you get your characters sound like real people instead of cardboard cutouts.

Punctuation and Dialogue Tags

A fundamental problem that new writers struggle with is the combination of punctuation with the so-called "dialogue tags." The he said-she said part of the sentence.

Dialogue is set off by quotation marks, with punctuation on the inside of the marks. Use commas to separate the dialogue tag from the words the character is saying. For example:

Question: Sharon turned to Joe and asked, "Did you enjoy that New Year's Eve party?"
Exclamation: Dan piped up from the backseat, "That was totally awesome, dude!"
Statement: Joe glanced over at Sharon and said, "It really was an awesome party."

If the dialogue tag follows the statement, the comma goes inside of the quotation marks and no period is used. For example:

Statement: "It's too bad we have to leave the party early," said Joe as he started the engine.

Now, not all dialogue needs to be tagged. Sometimes it's obvious who is talking. Say, for instance, there are only two people in that car. Do we need to write it so it reads Joe said/Sharon said/Joe said/Sharon said, etc., etc. No, of course not. If you establish a pattern between two people, the reader will be able to follow along. But if we know Dan is in the backseat, we'll be wondering about the untagged dialogue the whole time we're reading, trying to figure out if Dan is putting in his two cents or if he passed out after too much champagne.

The use of physical action can also be substituted for a straight dialogue tag, and can help to break up a repetitive he said-she said passage. For example:

Joe backed the car out of the parking spot. "Keep an eye on Dan. He had way too much to drink."

Turning around in her seat, Sharon saw that her twin brother had already fallen asleep. "He's passed out."

Joe's jaw clenched. "If he pukes in my car I'm going to kill him."

In the above passage, it's pretty easy to tell who's saying what without having to "tag" it with a he said or she said. You can tell by the actions, and because the sentences are separated into new paragraphs.

There are also other ways to say "said" in a dialogue tag, and other words that can be substituted that make sense in context. (e.g. yelled, cried, whimpered, complained, cheered, etc.) Specific verbs can add a sense of flavor, letting us know how the character is speaking. Are they happy or sad? Raising their voices to be heard? Screaming for help? Whispering sweet nothings?

Keep in mind that some editors and publishers have a problem with authors substituting a physical action for a dialogue tag. You will read books where the authors use them, but they are falling out of favor. Use actions to enhance your dialogue, not tag it.

Bad example: "Dan looks so sweet when he's asleep," Sharon smiled.

"Smiled" is not a substitute for "said." You can say something with a smile, but you can't smile it. However, if you flip that sentence around and add a period after the verb, it works.

Good example: Sharon smiled. "Dan looks so sweet when he's asleep."

Using Authentic Language

A second basic problem that writers can struggle with is making the characters sound authentic. A hero who grew up in a coal mining town in the mountains of West Virginia will sound different than a heroine who grew up in Westchester County, attended Yale and works on Wall Street. It just makes sense, given their family and educational backgrounds. I'm not even talking accents as much as word choices and sentence structure.

That doesn't mean the two of them can't meet at a different New Year's Eve party and fall madly in love, but it does mean they are going to sound different from each other when they have that first awkward conversation. The mountain man probably wouldn't use a lot of multi-syllabic verbiage and SAT-type of words. In fact, the mountain man would probably make fun of the Wall Street broker for "using puffed up fifty-cent words for no good reason."

Think of your favorite television show. Chances are you get a feel for who the characters are, their economic status and where they come from by listening to how they speak to one another.

That's not to say you should use a lot of regional slang or write your whole novel phonetically to get the dialect and vernacular across. Go ahead and throw in poor grammar or the use of "ain't" if your characters are uneducated. However, if it's hard to decipher the meaning behind the words coming out of the character's mouth, the meaning of the whole chapter might get lost as well.

Using Dialogue to Further Your Plot

Another basic thing to remember is only include dialogue that helps further the plot. Don't have one character call another just to discuss the weather, or to rehash the scene from the party that was already covered in the last chapter.

We all watched Dan pass out in the car and heard Sharon apologize to Joe for her brother's behavior. We don't need to read a blow-by-blow phone call between Sharon and her best friend where she recounts it all again in exact detail. When dialogue gets boring or repetitive, the reader tends to skip over it to get to the next "good" part. Or put the book down.

In Sharon's case, she might need to tell her best friend about the party she missed in order to further the plot. If so, you can summarize the conversation instead of writing it out sentence by sentence. In the example below, the parts italicized are my summary of the previous chapter.

Summarizing Dialogue: The next morning, Sharon called Diane and told her about the awesome party she'd missed the night before. Diane laughed when she heard Dan had passed out in the back seat of Joe's car. "It's not funny," Sharon said. "He drank too much because he's worried about you. You need to come home soon."

There. We didn't have to waste time reading a blow-by-blow of stuff we already read in the last chapter, and the plot point was covered. Dan drank too much because Diane is away somewhere and he's worried about her. Could he be worried that she's not in love with him anymore? Could that be the reason she volunteered for the last minute trip to check out that coal mine in West Virginia?

Well-written dialogue can really help make a story flow and make your characters seem more real. With practice, anyone can write dialogue that sparkles and keeps the reader wanting more.


  1. Good information! Dialogue is key to showing your story. Nice post.

  2. You made the points without being confusing. Good post, Katie.

  3. Great post! Also, the link to Chuck Wendig's rant was very insightful...if not colorful :-)

    1. Oh my god, I laughed out loud and scared the dog when I read that. I thought about scrapping my own stuff and just posting a link with "read this." ...but that's not very original :-)


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