Welcome to the last of three lessons on dialog! I’m really pleased with the responses in the first two lessons; I think you’re all experimenting with new ways to write dialog so that it sounds more natural, helps to enhance characterization, and establishes a good pace for your writing.
Before we start the final lesson, here’s this week’s
Quick Take: the abbreviation “vs.” stands for the word “versus”, not “verses” or “verse”. It means “against”.
This is a very common mistake, and it doesn’t help any that even television sportscasters get it wrong. More than once during the Olympics, I heard a commentator say “the United States verse Canada” or some such statement.
When I taught high school, it was very common to hear students ask each other “Who do we verse in the basketball game tonight?” As much as I like to imagine basketball players reciting poetry at each other, the usage is still wrong.
Okay, back to dialog.
I really don’t want to take away from Ann’s instruction on the punctuation and mechanics of dialog-writing (coming soon), so I’ll encourage you to look at the placement of the commas and periods in the following examples, and also at the capital and lower case letters. There are also several websites you can access with instruction on this tricky skill. So on this week’s homework submissions, I’m just going to comment on the content, and if there are problems with punctuation or capitalization, I’ll just note that and encourage you to give it a final polish.
I’ve already covered a few dialog pointers:
1. Be sure your dialog sounds natural—like the speech of real people
2. Be sure that it’s true to your character’s age, sex, status in life, and geography
3. Use dialog to develop your characters
4. Don’t overuse fancy verbs in your dialog tags—you can use said most times (although there are certainly some times when you’ll want to use a different verb).
5. Think twice before using a verb + adverb in a dialog tag. Then think again.
The bulk of this lesson is largely a repeat of last year's lesson on dialog, so if you were a follower of last year’s classes, you’re permitted to pass on this one.
A writer has many choices about how to write any given snippet of dialog.
1. Put the dialog tag first.
Jan said, “My granddaughter loves to nibble on her own chubby toes.”
This is a perfectly fine way to write dialog. It’s not used as often as #2 below, but if you have a story with a lot of dialog—especially an extended back-and-forth conversation—putting the tag first will give it a bit of variety.
Of course, you can also use a verb other than said in this construction. Do so intentionally—ask yourself if you need the verb in the tag, or if you can tweak the speech to show that action.
A rare usage:
Said Jan, “My granddaughter loves to nibble on her own chubby toes.”
Putting said first is more often seen in poetry or in prose from an earlier century.
2. Put the dialog tag at the end.
“I love how Piper nibbles her tootsies,” said Jan.
This is probably the most common, all-purpose construction. As with #1, you can vary this by using a verb other than said (with the same cautions). You could also write it thus:
“I love how Piper nibbles her tootsies,” Jan said.
3. Put the dialog tag in the middle.
“In any comparison of grandbabies,” said Jan, “my own would certainly come out on top.”
This is another good way to vary the rhythm of your dialog sentences, and in my opinion, it’s underused. If you do this, be sure to break up the speech in a natural place. For example, the following sentence just feels wrong:
“In any comparison of grandbabies, my own would,” said Jan, “certainly come out on top.”
As with #1 or #2, substitute for said when absolutely necessary.
4. Don’t use a dialog tag at all.
“Have you seen Piper’s adorable blonde fluff?”
“Jan, you're just a teensy bit obnoxious about that baby.”
Tagless dialog will move your story right along, and will save you precious words. If you do this, be sure that your reader can keep track of each speaker by
a. giving each one a distinctive voice
b. having them address each other by name every now and then
c. referring occasionally to other identifying events or characteristics
d. adding tags every so often
NOTE: if you find that your story consists almost entirely of dialog, consider writing it in the form of a play or a skit. Or italicize one voice. All-dialog stories are very difficult to write well, but can be very effective when they are.
5. Use a sentence describing the speakers’ actions either just before or just after the speech.
Jan bounced her granddaughter on her lap. “How’s my little Pippie today?”
“Phew, that diaper is ripe!” Jan held Piper out at arms’ length.
This is a very effective way to write dialog. In fact, it’s so effective that some writers use it as their only dialog-writing technique. I don’t have much of a problem with that…if you’re going to use only one of these five techniques, this is the one to use. But I also like to see some variety in dialogue, so that’s what I’ll assign for your
HOMEWORK: Write a little story (be merciful—less than 300 words, please), using a variety of dialogue techniques.
If you choose to do the homework, please make a comment or ask a question.
Of course, you may make a comment or ask a question regardless of whether you do the homework.
EXTRA CREDIT: Flip through the pages of your favorite novelist and observe how he or she writes dialog. How does that affect his or her work? For example, Lisa Samson writes almost entirely tagless dialog, and her novels are very briskly paced.
Last edited by glorybee
on Mon Mar 01, 2010 7:34 pm, edited 3 times in total.