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, it’s 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!

Repeating Yourself

Do repetitive phrases waste the reader’s time? Here are some common phrases that are  redundant.

  • advance planning: planning must always be done in advance
  • ask the question: is there ever anything else that can be asked but a question?
  • assemble together: a group cannot assemble any other way but together
  • cash money: cash is money
  • combined together: just like assemble together, there is no way to combine apart
  • each and every: as adjectives, these words mean the same thing
  • end result: results only happen at the end
  • fewer in number: fewer only refers to numbers
  • large in size: large denotes size, you don’t need to say “size”
  • mix together: like combine and assemble, things can only be mixed together
  • month of November: everyone knows November is a month
  • red in color: can red be anything other than a color?
  • square in shape: square is its shape
  • sum total: if you have a sum, you have a total

Many of these phrases, however, are used in every day speech. I don’t think I’ve ever watched a cooking show where the host hasn’t used the expression “mix together” or “combine together.” What does that mean for a writer?  Expressions like these are grammatically repetitive, yet common in usage. So for example, if you are writing dialogue between two average people, it might be perfectly acceptable to use phrases like these. Why? Because that’s how people talk. On the other hand, if you are writing narrative, you probably want to avoid them. Reading your work out loud will expose some of the clumsy phrases and awkward grammar that might have crept into your writing. Happy editing my friends!