For the beginners among us, here are three rules I learnt early on:
1. Quotation marks is the most common device to denote dialogue.
2. The quotation marks go outside punctuation marks ex: "Don't do that," she said.
3. Start a new paragraph when changing speakers.
Now for the fun stuff - what is a good dialogue and how can a writer use dialogue?
Well, in my opinion as a reader, I first like the dialogue to sound natural. I don't mind if the dialogue uses specific language or grammar that is unique to the world the characters are in, but contrived or forced dialogue just doesn't work. The dialogue needs to feel as if it was actually spoken by the characters.
Second, I feel that a good writer uses dialogue to emphasize characterization. A good dialogue can make or break a character and I just love it when a character can almost be identified by the way s/he speaks.
Third, so often I see it - dialogue used to show, not tell. Dialogue used as a hook - starting a piece with an intriguing line of dialogue. Dialogue used to summarize an otherwise long and boring narrative. In general, good writers use dialogue as a writing device, as a plot device, not just he said, she said.
Fourth, attribution and tags. Usually we identify the speaker very early (said John), but if there are only two I feel it is okay to sometimes omit the attribution. As for tags, I don't particularly like them much. They should be used sparingly and most often 'said' is quite enough. The occasional 'he whispered', 'she shrieked', 'he exclaimed' is fine, but not often.
Yes, humour - the only way I manage to put a little bit of humour in my writing is when I write dialogue. It's easiest for those of us who are not very talented in that department but would still like a little comic relief every now and then.
Another big thing to remember is that dialogue isn't the same as conversation. In dialogue (as opposed to real life conversation) we usually do without the routine stuff of 'hey, how are ya?' and too many ummms and ers.
And a little quote from Robert J. Sawyer article Speaking of Dialogue (go read):
Finally, much real dialog goes unfinished. When someone is interrupted or cut off abruptly, end the dialog with an em-dash (which you type in manuscript as two hyphens); when he or she trails off without completing the thought, end the dialog with ellipsis points (three periods). Real dialog also tends to be peppered with asides: "We went to Toronto -- boy, I hate that city -- and found . . ."
Feel free to add things I missed or supply your own opinion on the dialogue writing techniques above.
Categories: writing, process, dialogue