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?”
“Yes.”
“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!

The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Meg

Here we are on the last day of November. For those tired souls who participated in National Novel Writing Month – congratulations! It’s over! I did not participate this year, but instead set the goal of revising my completed manuscript for publication. I am not sure what happened to my time this month, but I’m sorry to say that I barely even made a dent in the job. Besides the introductory section I posted recently, I have accomplished absolutely nothing!

Nevertheless, I am still going to attempt to finish so as to publish before the year is out. If it seems a little quiet around here, you’ll know why. I’ll be in the subterranean lair, feverishly editing away…

Sometimes, all I need is the air that I breathe…

Inspire:  breathe in

Inspire:  fill someone with the urge or ability to do or feel something, especially to do something creative

Writers look for inspiration everywhere.  In some of my previous posts I’ve mentioned finding inspiration in music, in art, and in my own personal life experiences.  Having your senses stimulated this way, often fires your creative process.  There’s another way, though…

Like the rest of you, my life is busy and my mind can be a very noisy and messy place.  It can get to the point where it feels like I can’t catch my breath.  Maybe even like I’m under water.  When that happens, it’s time to take a break and find some quiet time.  For me, that means getting outside, no matter the weather.  Walking the country roads past the crumbling old walls that line the pastures, I let my mind wander.  There’s a fallen down barn on the dirt road about a mile away.  The red-tailed hawks perch on the half-rotted beams and watch for field mice and rabbits in the tall grass.  The wind sighing, the birds singing, the chatter of the squirrels is the only music to my ears.  Cross the creek, rushing with last night’s rain.  The smell of damp leaves, the early spring mud, all loamy and decayed.

Breathe it in deeply.  Inspire…

Maybe you live in the city and can’t get out into nature that easily.   Go out and walk the sidewalks, enjoy the sunshine, the hum of traffic, the jostle of people hurrying to their destinations.  Spend an hour, if you have it, without your phone.  Ignore the texts, e-mails and alerts for a while.  They’ll be there when you get back.  Find a park, sprawl on a bench, listen to the buzz of conversations going on around you, the laughter of children playing.  Let it be like white noise, vague and mesmerizing.

Inspire…

Now go home and write something beautiful.