Thursday, 1 December 2011

D is for Dialogue

There are 3 aspects of dialogue to consider: technicalities, what is said (and what isn't) and what surrounds the speaking ie the context.

1. Technicalities:
Dialogue attributions.
He said, she said are always preferable - we hardly notice them when we're reading. The other attributions that work are related to volume eg he whispered, she shouted. Ditch all the others - people can't smile speech, or giggle it, and it should be clear from the words spoken and the context whether someone is for example answering, or replying or asking etc. (This is contrary to what you're taught in primary school BTW.)

'Right now,' she said, 'using "she said" is preferable to "said she".' Too many "said she" in your text will give you an old fashioned feeling.
Another fashion is in the use of quotation marks. Current UK practice is single quotes for speech, with quotes within speech given a double quotation mark.

'It's got to be like this,' she said. 'Start with a quotation mark and a capital letter, finish with either a comma, full stop, question mark, or exclamation mark followed by a closing quotation mark.'
If it's a full stop, then there shouldn't be a "she said" afterwards, as you're starting a new sentence. You can, however, have a new sentence that is: She smiled.
If it's a comma, then you haven't yet finished the sentence. You need to put a 'she said' afterwards.
If it's a question mark or an exclamation mark then you can treat them as either a comma or a full stop - in other words, they don't need a 'she said' afterwards, but you can put one in.

A bit of speech from a new or different character always starts on a new paragraph. If it's the same character speaking then you can continue the same paragraph.

If in doubt, get a good book on grammar. I like The Elements of Style by Strunk and White for this sort of thing, but there are lots around.

2. What is said (or not)
Good dialogue can do things such as pass on information, but it should always be characterised for the speaker. I did an exercise in class a few weeks back where I took an extract from a book and cut it into speech and actions. The students knew nothing of the characters, beyond there being two of them. They had to put the dialogue into the right order and tell me about the characters. I was impressed that everyone managed to do this and get the characterisation right, just from a few lines. They also managed to guess the relationship between the characters. That's good writing.

What isn't said is as important as what is said. People rarely answer questions directly:

'Did you sleep with Jack?'
'Who said I did?' or 'Why would you think that?' or 'Don't be ridiculous' are all more likely answers than a straightforward Yes or No.

Well, do you think they slept with Jack? If so, you've been reading the subtext that says answering a question with a question or an accusation would imply a positive answer.

Try this one:

'How much did that dress cost?'

Which is/are the most likely answer(s), and fill in your own subtext...

'Oh this old thing, I've had it for years.'
'It was in the sale.'
'Isn't it great - I'm going to wear it to the Christmas party.'
'It was quite expensive, but I'm going to get lots of wear from it.'

3. What surrounds the speaking
I think the actions that surround the speaking are actually more important than the speech itself. Consider -

She threw the coffee cup across the room. 'I hate you,' she said.
She twined her fingers in his hair, and breathed softly into his ear. 'I hate you,' she said.

The actions tell us about the intonation and intention behind the words more clearly than the words themselves do, even with the addition of some adverbs.

'I hate you,' she said angrily.
'I hate you,' she said seductively.

Actions can also be used to provide thinking space, to allow the character a change in thought direction. 'Let's go into town,' she said. She looked around at the bodies slumped in front of the television set. 'You're all losers.'

So those are the basic areas to consider when writing dialogue. Listen to people in real life, hear your characters speak, and you won't go far wrong.


Fiona Faith Maddock said...

I'm finding your A to Z of Writing very helpful and enjoyable. It's a great idea.

Some of the advice you offer is in fact quite hard to find, believe it or not, so I'm glad you decided to do it.

Philip C James said...

Good, practical advice, Sarah.

Comprehensive too. About the only thing you've missed out is the standard warning about writing dialogue in dialect, street talk, or slang: "Don't (unless you're brave, foolhardy, or well versed)."

The tips on when to use 's/he said' are useful and not something I've come across elsewhere.

I'm glad you end all speech with an apostrophe. I used to baulk at having to write quotations in PRs in line with the convention accepted by some that subsequent paragraphs are opened but not closed by speech marks.

Your final point is so true but not surprising if you've come across the statistic that 70% of communication is non-verbal (that's about right, though it's well known that 80% of all statistics used in debates are made up...)

Sarah Duncan said...

Fiona, glad to hear it's useful, I was worried I'd be going over stuff that everybody knew...

Phil, yes, dialect is a disaster and best avoided. Indicate it through rhythm and colloquial expressions. I utterly recoil at the punctuation habits found in PRs - punctuation is there to make things clear, if you don't close off the quote, how do you know when it's ended. Love your use of statistics.