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06.03.2013 11:23    Comments: 0    Categories: Writing Dialogue      Tags: terry odell  dialogue basics  dialogue  

First, the absolute nitty-gritty. If you don't understand these first four rules, your work will probably never get beyond the form rejection letter. If any of these aren't automatic, you should take a refresher course in basic writing.

 

  1. Use quotation marks to indicate words which are spoken by characters.
  2. Always start a new paragraph when changing speakers. You cannot have two people speaking in the same paragraph.
  3. Make sure the reader knows who is speaking.
  4. Use correct punctuation, capitalization and spacing.

 

Assuming you've got those down, what next? I suggest the following two books as handy references, not only for dialogue.

 

The First Five Pages, A Writer's Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile, by Noah Lukeman

Self Editing for Fiction Writers - How to Edit Yourself into Print, by Renni Browne and Dave King

 

Some Guidelines

 

Avoid the commonplace.

Transcribing actual conversations would include all the hemming and hawing people normally do. Leave out most of the 'well', 'um', etc. Phone conversations. We assume the usual "hello, goodbye, how are you?" exchanges.

Don't use dialogue to info dump.

Often referred to as "Maid-Butler" in historical romance, where the maid and the butler will rehash what happened last week, simply as a plot device. In science fiction, it's, "As You Know, Bob." Don't have two characters who both know something tell each other again. Two cops aren't going to use lay terms. If jargon is normal, figure out a way to let the reader know that a BOLO is a Be On The LookOut, because the cops aren't going to spell it out to each other.

 

Dialogue is not exactly like real speech, but it should read like real speech.

Beware long, drawn out speeches. Break it up. If the same character continues to speak without any sort of tag, there are no closing quotes at the end of the last sentence of the paragraph, but there are opening quotes at the beginning of the next.

 

Avoid stereotypes, especially when it comes to dialect.

 

Dialogue tags, also called speaker attributions, or speaker tags - or just 'tags'

The function of a dialogue tag is to let the reader follow the conversation. If it's not needed, don't use it. Ideally, your characters should sound unique so a reader could tell who's speaking without any tags at all.

 

Don't try too hard to vary your tag lines when writing dialogue

 

Don't be afraid of 'said.' It's invisible. Read one of Robert B. Parker's Spenser novels. He uses 'said' a lot. Do you even notice? "Creative" dialogue tags are distracting to readers, because they'll stop to make sure the tag and the words match.

When you vary your tag words, make sure they're 'speaking' words, not facial expressions or sounds. You can't 'grimace' a word. And if your character is going to 'hiss' something, make sure there are sibilants in the dialogue. "Good grief," he hissed isn't going to cut it.

 

Avoid adding an 'ly' adverb to a 'said' tag. The dialogue itself should get across the underlying emotion.

Avoid Tom Swifties: "I'm, sorry," he said apologetically."

 

Break up dialogue with action. Beats show action and can convey emotion by showing, not telling.

"I'm fine." Sarah tore her napkin into shreds. "I don't need anything."

Subject/verb is conventional.

John said, not said John.

Characters are speaking to other characters, not to the reader.

In addition to one speaker per paragraph, beware of including an action of a second character in the same paragraph.

Don't bury your dialogue.

Yes, there are exceptions. But learn to use the rules correctly so you know when to break them.

 

Techniques to try

 

1. Get the words down.

2. Add tags, beats, and interior monologue.

3. Check for flow.

4. Adjust as needed.

Dialogue is made up of two basic components. The words the characters speak (the stuff between the quotation marks), and the tags (other stuff, outside the quotes, which shows HOW they say it).

 

Let's look at the speech part first - following is a scene from Hidden Fire (Terry Odell, Cerridwen Press, Spring 2009) where Randy, a police detective, approaches a crime scene. Imagine you're listening in with your super spy surveillance equipment, but you have audio only. The following is dialogue only - the stuff between the quotes.

*****************

"Tough scene? Your first?"

"Yes, sir, to both. I'm fine, sir."

"I don't doubt it. You're not being punished, Brody. Your job here is vital. Every extra footprint, every bit of cigarette ash, fiber or hair contaminates the scene and makes our job harder."

"Yes, sir. I know my job, sir. Sergeant Kovak and Mike Connor are on scene. A lot of these are from out of area. The Deputy Sheriffs said it's close enough to the city-county line.

"Keep it up, Brody."

"Hey, Detweiler. Welcome back."

"Yeah, you guys really know how to throw a party. What do we have?"

"White male, five-eight, about one-fifty. Shot in the back of his head, stripped to his birthday suit, abdominal cuts, but the M.E. will have to determine in what order. Four kids found the body and called it in. Kovak took their statements. Released them to their parents, who are probably giving them holy hell for coming out here in the first place. I've got names and addresses."

"The kids contaminate the scene?"

"They dropped everything and ran. I've already got finger and shoe prints for elimination and they said they didn't get close to the body once they smelled it. They won't be getting their beer back. Think I should give them the magazines?"

"They might need them. I have a feeling they'll be confined to their rooms for a good chunk of the foreseeable future."

*****************

Now for the 'other stuff', commonly referred to as 'tags'. There are 3 basic types. First, the speaker tag - the 'he said, she said' that shows who's speaking. In addition, you'll want to convey HOW the speech is being delivered. There are two basic ways to do this. One is with an action tag, or beat. The other is with an emotional tag, or interior monologue. The former lets us see what the character is doing. The latter shows us what the character is thinking or feeling.

Let's see how it works. In the following example, tags, beats, and interior monologue have been added to the scene quoted above. Speaker tags are blue, action tags are red, and interior monologue is green.

"Tough scene?" Randy asked. "Your first?"

"Yes, sir, to both." He stood at attention, met Randy's eyes. "I'm fine, sir."

Did he detect disgruntlement in the rookie's tone? "I don't doubt it. You're not being punished, Brody. Your job here is vital. Every extra footprint, every bit of cigarette ash, fiber or hair contaminates the scene and makes our job harder."

"Yes, sir. I know my job, sir."

Randy scanned the names again. He was pleased to see Charlotte Russell, the medical examiner, near the top of the list. Once she removed the body, they could work the scene in earnest.

"Sergeant Kovak and Mike Connor are on scene." Brody stood even more erect and tapped the clipboard. "A lot of these are from out of area. The Deputy Sheriffs said it's close enough to the city-county line."

Randy resisted the urge to pat the kid on the head. "Keep it up, Brody." He scanned the area for Kovak. He didn't see his partner, but he did see Mike Connor, Pine Hills' head forensics investigator. He moved toward the flashes from the man's camera.

Connor lowered the camera and turned, catching Randy's eye. "Hey, Detweiler. Welcome back."

"Yeah, you guys really know how to throw a party." Randy stepped to Connor's side. "What do we have?"

"White male, five-eight, about one-fifty. Shot in the back of his head, stripped to his birthday suit, abdominal cuts, but the M.E. will have to determine in what order. Four kids found the body and called it in. Kovak took their statements. Released them to their parents, who are probably giving them holy hell for coming out here in the first place. I've got names and addresses."

"The kids contaminate the scene?" Nothing like puking on a corpse to mess up the evidence.

Connor shook his head. "They dropped everything and ran." He pointed to three six-packs of cheap beer and a stack of girlie magazines near a trail of trampled dirt and grass. "I've already got finger and shoe prints for elimination and they said they didn't get close to the body once they smelled it." He smiled. "They won't be getting their beer back. Think I should give them the magazines?"

Randy chuckled. "They might need them. I have a feeling they'll be confined to their rooms for a good chunk of the foreseeable future."

Dialogue to Control Pacing


1. Faster pace - fewer beats, or interior monologue. Tags are short, used primarily to keep the characters straight. Short paragraphs. (All examples from WHEN DANGER CALLS by Terry Odell. Five Star - Expressions, 2008 )


"I'm fine. Is Molly really all right?"

"She's shivering. Good sign."

Frankie jogged to keep up with Jack's stride as he traveled through the trees.

"Where are we going? The road's back that way, isn't it? Or did I really get turned around?"

"Shorter this way."

"She's going to be okay, isn't she? Do you think she needs to go to the hospital? I meant to give her swimming lessons in Boston, but I was so busy with work, and-"

"Frankie."

"What?"

"Save your breath."

"Sorry. But I tend to-"

"Babble. I know."

 

With more than 2 people in the scene, you'll need more attributes so readers can follow.

"Let the woman go," Ryan said. "I have what you want. She's not part of this."

"Where's Molly?" Frankie shouted. "Give me my daughter!"

"Stay behind me," Ryan whispered. "And be quiet. Don't make him mad."

"Make him mad?" She poked her head around Ryan. "If you've hurt her, so help me-"

Ryan grabbed her wrist. "Dammit woman, let me handle this."

"The little lady, she is too much for you to handle?" the man said. "I'm sure I can take care of her for you." He leered, and Ryan clenched his fists.

"Leave her alone," Ryan said. "You've got her daughter."

"Yes. Her pretty little girl. Such big, blue eyes."

Frankie's fingernails dug into his biceps. At least she was quiet.

"I repeat," Ryan went on. "Give me the child, or there's no deal."

"First, you show me what you have."

 

2. Slower pace - more tags, beats, and interior monologue

 

"Wait," Belle said. "Give him to Gladys-five bucks says even she can't get him to smile."

 

Frankie took a last sip of coffee and adjusted her Gladys nametag, her own gimmick. Who'd want to hit on someone named Gladys? Just about anyone, she discovered her first night.

 

She watched the man, slumped in the corner as if the world sat on his shoulders. "A smile?" she said. "I'll take that bet." She pulled a five out of her tip pouch and set it under her coffee mug. Giving her uniform skirt a quick tug, she stepped across the floor, forgetting her aching feet.

 

"What'll you have, sir?" She leaned forward to light the candle in the red jar on the table, displaying her chest the way Mr. Stubbs insisted. Not that she had a lot to display, despite the bustier. Belle got the big tips.

 

"Don't," he said, his voice a harsh bark.

 

Frankie straightened, and in the match's glow, gave her customer a closer look. Long, wavy brown hair mingled with a full, scruffy beard that showed he didn't bother to shave. He kept his gaze low, his eyes shadowed behind half-lowered lids. Nostrils flared on a nose that looked as if it had been broken at least once.

 

She fanned out the match. There might be a chip the size of a redwood tree on his shoulder, but there was a pain in his eyes that reminded her of Buddy, an abandoned stray she'd tried to befriend as a child. "Things are always better in the light. What can I get you?" Besides a shoulder to cry on. Nobody should hurt that much.

 

Where you put the tags will also influence the pace of the read. They force a reader to pause. They can come at the beginning, the middle, or the end. You should place them where they sound best. Reading your work aloud will help give you the feel of the dialogue.

 

 


About the Author

 

Terry Odell is the author of five romantic suspense novels and numerous contemporary romance short stories. Her most recent releases include, WHEN DANGER CALLS, an action adventure published by Five Star Expressions, and HIDDEN FIRE, a sequel to FINDING SARAH, published by Cerridwen Press.

www.terryodell.com


 
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