Monday, September 10, 2012
Dialogue Lessons: Mechanics, Part 1
As promised last Friday, during the rest of September I'll be sharing some notes here from my "The Art of Writing Dialogue" workshop that I've presented to many writing groups. After establishing some common ground with definitions Friday, here's the first lesson on Mechanics, the nitty gritty little details of writing dialogue. I'll present sixteen "rules of thumb" in this Mechanics section, the first five of which I'll cover today.
1. Put each character’s dialogue and/or actions in separate paragraphs (such as the four separate paragraphs below).
“Watch what you’re doing,” Jake shouted.
Becky cringed. “Sorry about that.”
“That’s okay,” Jake said. “Just do better next time.”
Becky carefully put the vase back on the shelf.
2. Separate the dialogue from character tags with commas, unless a new sentence begins after a tag (see above).
Bad: “Hang onto the raft”, yelled Mandy to the woman.
“Okay.” The woman said. “but I don’t know how long I can”.
Good: “Hang onto the raft,” Mandy yelled at the woman.
“Okay,” the woman said, “but I don’t know how long I can.”
3. Stick mostly with three basic speaking verbs (said, asked, replied/answered) and sparingly use some that indicate volume (whispered, murmured, shouted, yelled). Use ‘said’ most of the time, because readers’ eyes are trained to skip it. Only use ‘hissed’ if what’s being said contains S’s.
Bad: “You fool,” Gregorio hissed.
Good: “You stupid ass,” Gregorio hissed.
4. Avoid animal sounds (growled, chirped, tittered, croaked) and other weird speech tags (opined, blustered, mused, cried, orated). And don’t substitute a non-speech word for ‘said’ in a tag.
Bad: “You’re looking mighty fine tonight,” he leered.
Good: He leered at her. “You’re looking mighty fine tonight.”
5. Put the tag as close to the beginning of the dialogue line as you can, where the first comma or period would appear, so the reader knows who is speaking as soon as possible. Also, if emotion is expressed in the tag, that will "flavor" the speech that follows.
Bad: “You are a moron, an absolute moron. I’m surprised you know which foot to put your shoe on in the morning,” Robert said with a sneer.
Better: “You are a moron,” Robert said with a sneer, “an absolute moron. I’m surprised you know which foot to put your shoe on in the morning.”
Best: Robert sneered. “You are a moron, an absolute moron. I’m surprised you know which foot to put your shoe on in the morning.”