Thursday, March 17, 2011

Dialogue Basics, Part I: Fancy Fontwork & Other Mechanical Mishaps

Dialogue is one of those basics of good writing you must learn to master, and yet, for some people, it’s the most difficult. Some people believe you have to have a “gift” or “an ear” for dialogue. Perhaps. Even if you, like, totally suck at it, however, there are some moves every writer can try to improve what gifts your ear has received. It’s going to take more than one post to work through them, but here is a good start:

The Mechanics

First of all, my little grasshoppers, learn the mechanics. Though some writers come up with their own quirky ways of presenting dialogue on the page and though conventions vary between countries, languages, eras, and editors, there’s a standard way in good ole American English to do this, and you should partake:

1.       Begin a new paragraph every time you change speakers.
2.       Enclose the dialogue in quotation marks.
3.       Include any marks of punctuation belonging to the dialogue inside the quotation marks.

That’s the basics. Behold:

                “I am Speaker A,” Speaker A said.
                “And I am Speaker B,” Speaker B said.

And so forth. The tag after the dialogue (Speaker A/B said) is called the attribution. If you have only two speakers and it’s fairly clear who said what, it’s generally okay to skip it. However, in extended passages of dialogue (more than one or two exchanges), there’s nothing more annoying than having to try to figure out who said what. Simple attributive phrases like those above are functionally invisible, and there is no need for you to worry that you are repeating them too much. The eye drifts right over them and the brain only registers them when necessary, so better to include them than to confound your reader with a whosaidit dilemma. If you like, you can spice things up by switching around the placement of your attributions:

                “I am Speaker A,” Speaker A said.
                Speaker B said, “And I am Speaker B.”
                “I am here to tell you,” Speaker C said, “that I am Speaker C.”

Do not attempt to spice things up by finding 1001 synonyms for said. Unlike said, its synonyms do not have that cloak of invisibility that makes it serviceable without being intrusive. Furthermore, they are cheesy:

                “I am Speaker A,” Speaker A declaimed.
                Speaker B enthused, “And I am Speaker B.”
                “I am here to tell you,” Speaker C insisted, “that I am Speaker C.”

What? This is nuts. People generally just say things. Only actors on a stage declaim, and any enthusiasm someone feels should be evident from the dialogue, not from the attribution. People do insist sometimes, but save the word for when it’s appropriate. Never get tired of the word said.

While we’re in this neighborhood, do avoid excessive adverbs and explanations of how your dialogue is delivered:

                “I am Speaker A,” Speaker A said loudly.
                Straightening his back and taking a deep breath, Speaker B said, “And I am Speaker B.”
                “I am here to tell you,” Speaker C said forcefully, thinking that perhaps it was time for her to speak, “that I am Speaker C.”

Huh? Too much. If you’re doing a decent job of setting, characterization, and plot, it should be obvious in what way and for what reasons your characters say what they say. Adverbs such as loudly or forcefully do little to change the boring nature of the sample dialogue above, and mindless physical actions attached to dialogue are more distracting than helpful. Unless your character is crossing his fingers behind his back or secretly reaching for the trigger of the gun in her pocket, don’t include extra information with your dialogue in an effort to “wrap” it.

Another thing to avoid: wacky punctuation. Punctuation can be a wonderful tool if used well. Excessive punctuation or dramatic exclamation points are not good uses of punctuation. You get only one end mark per sentence: a period or a question mark. Do not end a question with a period, and do not end anything with an exclamation mark. Also avoid ellipses:

                “Am I Speaker A,” Speaker A said.
                Speaker B said, “I am Speaker B!!!”
                “I wonder . . . ” Speaker C said, “could I be Speaker C?!”

Such punctuation can be the work of only two kinds of people: teenagers or lunatics (some would argue these are one and the same). If being Speaker B is a cataclysm, the fact stands alone, and all your exclamation points do nothing but call attention to the fact that you are an amateur. Punctuation is not cumulative. Two or three exclamation points have no more power than one, and a dramatic question is still a question. Even a single exclamation point brings with it the stench of melodrama. As to ellipses, wonder is a good verb. It does not need ellipses to help it.

Finally, please do not use capitalization or fancy fontwork to try to get your point across:

                “I AM SPEAKER A,” Speaker A said.
                Speaker B said, “And I am Speaker B.”
                I am here to tell you,” Speaker C said, “that I am Speaker C.”

Is your keyboard having a stroke? This is just weird. Again, it betrays an effort to add drama where none exists. The drama should come from what is being said, and not from explanations, misuse of punctuation or capitalization, or your font choice. About the only alternative font you are allowed to use is italics, for emphasis. But use italics sparingly; huge chunks of italics or too frequent use of italics dilute the effectiveness of the change from your standard font, which 99.99% of writers, editors, and publishers agree is Times New Roman 12, plain.

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