I finally noticed….

Recently I discovered that I either accidentally unfollowed some of the blogs I’d been following OR that the WordPress goblins acted up again. I hope no one took offense at my absence or silence – it was completely unintended! And I plan to remedy the situation over the next couple of days. I apologize!

More about dialogue

After reposting my discussion about dialogue, I thought of a few more things to take into consideration when creating conversations between and among our characters.

  • Their age – older people will use different terms and expressions from younger people. The references they choose will be age appropriate as well. People in their 20’s and 30’s aren’t going to quote The Andy Griffith Show, for instance. They probably don’t even know who that is. Older folks may speak a little more formally, they may not curse or use slang as often. In Three Empty Frames, one of my characters is an elderly gentleman. He says things like “Heavens to Betsy” and “Why, I never!” which is perfectly acceptable for someone in his 80’s. However, if his daughter, in her late 20’s, spoke that way, it would sound ridiculous.
  • Regional expressions – I touched on this briefly in yesterday’s post. There are local expressions and terminologies that won’t travel to all parts of the country. I’ll give you a regional Philly example. “Jawn” is a term only used in this part of the country that refers to a person, place, event or thing. And while it pretty much defies definition, maybe it’ll make more sense if I use it in a sentence. “I really want the new iPhone but that jawn is too expensive.” “Went to see Roger Waters in concert last month. That jawn was awesome.” No one in Indiana or Florida or Utah is going to say “jawn”.
  • Cliches – I despise cliches. However, people do use them in their everyday speech. This is really up to the writer, but overusing cliches even in writing dialogue gets really boring. Keep them to a minimum.
  • Use of names – what I mean is having the speaker constantly say the name of the person to whom he is speaking. Like this:

“Joni, are you ok?”
“Yes, Graham, I’m fine.”
“Thank god, Joni. I was worried.”
“Graham, you are too sweet.”

We know who is talking to whom after the first two lines, the names don’t need to be constantly repeated. We don’t speak like that to each other in the real world, don’t do it in your fictional world, either.

  • Speech descriptors – while I don’t completely buy into Elmore Leonard’s rule of only using ‘said’ and ‘asked’ to describe speech, I do think it’s usually the best choice. I had read this rule after writing the first draft of my first Bucks County Novel. When I went back and read aloud all the ways I had described what people were saying, I cringed. Shouted, blustered, snapped, laughed, spat, hissed, giggled, sighed, moaned, grumbled, mumbled, murmured, whispered, muttered, shrieked… well, you get the idea. I changed 80% of that back to ‘said’ and ‘asked’. And to be accurate, people don’t ‘laugh’ or ‘sigh’ their words, they ‘say’ them with a sigh. Like this:

Wrong: “What am I going to do with you, Kerry?” she sighed.
Right: “What am I going to do with you, Kerry?” she asked, sighing. (or with a sigh.)

Our fictional conversations have to be natural. It will impact the believability and relate-ability of our characters. Readers need to be invested in those characters to want to keep reading their stories. And we want those stories to be read!

Happy writing and productive editing!

He said, she said… Writing dialogue.

My writing is filled with dialogue. I’ve always played my stories out as films in my head and often wonder if they’d make good screenplays. After submitting some of my work for professional critique to a group of published writers and a couple of agents, I received positive feedback on the writing and on the dialogue in particular. The back and forth banter between characters should be natural, not stiff and formal. Sometimes the rules of grammar get bent or even broken! With that in mind, I decided to repost this short primer on writing dialogue for newer writers out there.  – Meg

In this post, I decided to cover a grammar topic that I had to brush up on when I began this writing journey. The stories I write tend to be filled with conversation and there are rules to follow closely and rules you can break with impunity. That’s the interesting thing about writing dialogue; it’s the one time it’s permissible to use bad grammar!

“What?!?” you ask, outraged. “How can this be?”

Well, let me explain.

You are aware, I’m sure, that in casual conversation, many of the rules of grammar are regularly thrown out the window. For example, your characters might use regional terminology, slang and/or colloquialisms. If you’re in South Philadelphia, meeting your friends at the baseball park, one of them might say in greeting, “Yo! How you doin’?” Translation: “Hello, how are you doing?” But you’d never write it that way. In Philadelphia you don’t “go to the beach” you “go down the shore,” and there are more.

Another situation is in the the use of “who” and “whom.” Unless you are an English professor its likely that you would ask the friends headed to the beach: “who are you going with?” rather than the proper, “with whom are you going?” because really, who talks like that? (Sorry English professors.)

Those brief examples demonstrate how it’s perfectly acceptable to let your characters use bad grammar within their conversations. However, while the dialogue itself may venture outside the rules, the way you write the speech demands the use of proper punctation, especially when it involves quotation marks.  Let’s look at a few common rules to follow:

1. Periods, commas, question marks and exclamation points all go inside the quotation marks. The sentence doesn’t end with the speech if you add “he said, she said, they said,” or something like that to describe who is speaking. Here’s what I mean:

“Joni, you look beautiful tonight,” he said. OR “Joni, you look beautiful tonight.”

-In the first sentence, ‘he’ is not capitalized and a comma was used at the end of his speech instead of a period. That’s because the sentence didn’t end until after ‘said.’ In the second sentence, the writer assumes the reader knows who is talking so they don’t use ‘he said.’ In that case the speech ends with a period.

-Now this might seem weird, but if the speech ends with either an exclamation point or a question mark, and you use ‘he/she/they said’ or ‘he/she/they asked,’ it still doesn’t end the sentence and he or she should not be capitalized. Like this:

“Joni, is that you?” he asked.
“Of course, it’s me!” she said.

2. When a speaker says multiple sentences, quotation marks go at the end of the speech, not each sentence. If you break up a speech with another sentence, not spoken, then begin the second part of the speech with new quotes. Here’s an example:

“Graham, I don’t want to fight anymore. Can’t we just discuss this like civilized people?” Joni asked.

“Graham, I don’t want to fight anymore.” Joni sighed and rubbed her eyes. “Can’t we just discuss this like civilized people?”

3. Every time you change speakers, indent and start a new paragraph, even if the speech is only one word. This allows the reader to follow who is speaking to whom. Here’s how that would read:

“Joni, are you listening to me?”
“Well, say something, will you?”
“I think you’re wrong, Graham.”

-Notice how even without ‘he said’ or ‘she said’ you still know who is speaking. Quick, back-and-forth dialogue can be bogged down with too many descriptors. You don’t always need them as long as you start new paragraphs whenever you change speakers.

There are more rules about the use of quotation marks, ones that have less to do with speech and more to do with offsetting titles of books and such. I decided to exclude those here, although that might be material for another post.

I hope this was helpful and I wish you all productive writing and successful conversation!