In my last blog, I wrote about intention and the need for our dialogue to sound natural, convey aspects of character and move our stories towards the climax. I also discussed the idea of active writing and the way dialogue ‘shows, rather than tells’ a story. Today, I want to continue this line of thought about intention by exploring dialogue attribution and the practical matters of punctuation and formatting.
Getting our character to speak is a wonderfully active way to show them to our readers. This is not to say, however, that dialogue is never a form of telling; it certainly can be, in a couple of ways.
When characters ‘flag’ information for the readers: ‘Hello, my name is Dr Vivian Smyth and I’m a paediatrician.’ (This might be okay if Vivian is at medical conference but otherwise, no).
When attribution is used to tell the reader how dialogue is delivered.
Dialogue tags can be hazardous to the health of your story. These pesky words are often used because we’ve been told that they make our writing stronger and more descriptive. Not true. In fact, they usually strip the dialogue of effectiveness and power.
Dialogue/attribution tags are those words we tack on after the dialogue, such as I snapped/screamed/hissed/growled, or I said, angrily, Sue said, impatiently etc. Tags like these should be used sparingly, and with intention. Before using a dialogue adverb (e.g. angrily) ask: ‘Can I show this emotion through action or through the dialogue itself?’ (Yes, you can!). Before using a verb tag (e.g. screamed) ask: ‘Can my character truly say this dialogue in this manner?’ This is about verisimilitude – the ‘realness’ of the story.
A good illustration of this point is the attribution tag ‘screamed’. Numerous writers, emerging and professional, use this tag in dialogue. For example:
‘I want to go home to my see my family and you can’t stop me,’ screamed Alison.
What is the problem here? Don’t know? Okay, try this – scream this line of dialogue. Go on, I’ll wait… No, don’t yell the words, scream them…
What happened? Could you get the whole sentence out without sounding ridiculous? No? And therein lies the problem. A scream is an inarticulate sound that does not contain words – think of any movie victim of grief, anguish or terror (or go here for an example from Home Alone). The reality is a character cannot scream more than one or two words: No! Yes! Help! And even then, we’re stretching verisimilitude. A similar argument can be made against other tags, such as ‘hissed’, ‘growled’, ‘howled’ etc. If you want to use these for a character’s dialogue, try it out yourself first. If you can do it, then so can your character.
One last thing, when overused, attribution tags become annoying, melodramatic and make the reader aware of the mechanics of the writing rather than the story. Consider, as examples, these two pieces of dialogue:
‘Please, Rach, can’t we work this out?’ Brett moaned.
‘It’s too late,’ Rachel cried.
‘But we love each other,’ Brett sobbed.
‘There are some things love can’t overcome,’ Rachel snapped.
Brett reached for her hand. ‘Please, Rach, can’t we work this out?’
‘It’s too late,’ Rachel said, shaking her head.
‘But we love each other.’
‘There are some things love can’t overcome,’ Rachel replied, pulling her hand away.
Do you see the difference? I thought you would; using actions and the words in the dialogue are a better option than using verb-laden attribution tags.
The best dialogue doesn’t require attribution tags (not even ‘said’, as can be seen in Margaret Atwood’s dialogue-only story, There Was Once, or in Tim Winton’s, Cloudstreet; read an extract here.) because the characters are so well-drawn and the actions are so clear, the reader can distinguish the emotional context and delivery of the word.
So what do you use instead of dialogue tags? Usually said/replied/asked, or their present tense equivalent. These tags ‘disappear’ from the dialogue because the reader is concentrating on what is said (that is, they’re focused on the story). This is not to say that we never use dialogue tags – sometimes they are necessary – what it does mean is that we use tags with intention.
As with all writing, dialogue has a basic set of punctuation ‘rules’, which are designed to assist the reader in following a conversation. More importantly, they ensure readers understand the meaning you are attempting to convey through the dialogue.
Now, for some of you, the rebellious writer inside might be up on their high horse, shouting, ‘I ain’t following no rules.’ And fair enough— when you’re as good a writer as say, Tim Winton, or James Joyce, or Margaret Atwood (all of whom have eschewed punctuation at some point in their body of work). But, as with Vincent van Gogh, in order to break the rules, you need to first know and understand them because, then, breaking them becomes intentional.
Below is a guide to the basic formatting and punctuation of dialogue. I say ‘guide’ because some publishers and competitions may have slight variations on these. Always check the submission guidelines and/or style guides and follow these to ensure you give yourself the best chance at publication or winning.
Indent dialogue in the same manner as a prose paragraph (usually 1 tab space)
Start each character’s dialogue on a new line.
Keep a character’s action and dialogue in the same paragraph.
Use short dialogue paragraphs to increase tension, tone and pace.
Avoid breaking dialogue to insert attribution (e.g. ‘I said’) without purpose or intention, for example, to include an action or relevant description.
An example (extract from The Shroudeaters by Maria Arena):
His eyes surveyed my body and explored my face with deliberate slowness before he answered. I waited under his inspection, unmoved. ‘By supporting the proletariat in their struggle for just reward, we defy the darkness,’ he replied, holding out his hand. ‘And you are?’
‘Didier Villette,’ he said, bending to brush his lips across my hand. ‘Enchanté.’
Six months later, I agreed to be his wife. Six months after that, my parents killed me.
My parents: Callisto and Constantine.
Enclose dialogue with speech marks. I prefer single [‘…’] but some publishers prefer double [“…”]. Check their guidelines.
All punctuation belongs inside the speech marks.
Dialogue within dialogue also requires speech marks. If using single speech marks, use double for the secondary dialogue, and vice versa if you are using double speech marks.
‘I asked him three times before he said, “For God sake, Angelina, yes, the baby is mine.” That’s when I lost it, as I’m sure you can imagine.’
‘Listen to me, Evette. I know about the money,’ I said, taking her hand.
‘Listen to me, Evette. I know about the money.’ I took her hand and held it gently.
Exclamation marks are NOT your friend. Avoid or limit the use of
exclamation marks (in all writing). If an exclamation mark is needed, use one; multiple exclamation marks (e.g.!!!) are childish and become annoying to the reader. Exclamation marks are a form of telling rather than showing and, in most cases, they are also repetitive and/or redundant. Consider the following sentence:
‘You idiot!!!’ I shouted, slamming my hand on the table between us. ‘I can’t believe you could be so stupid!!! How are we going to pay the rent now?!!’ A wave of despair swept through me and, for once, I didn’t try to hide it from him.
In this example, the exclamation marks are not needed as the dialogue, attribution, action and description convey the emotion and emphasis. Occasionally, an exclamation might be needed (No! Yes! James!), but use them sparingly and, as always, with intention.
Ellipsis […]. These should be used sparingly in dialogue (and in all prose,
if at all). They are used to indicate a long pause or trailing off of speech. Generally, however, finish the sentence. This is much better than peppering the story with unnecessary punctuation. If you do use ellipsis, remember they consist of three dots only. Like exclamation marks, using more than three dots looks amateurish.
Dialogue is an important device in story. When used well, it adds verve, tension and insight. When handled poorly, it a cinder block attached to the feet of our characters. Consider carefully, then, what a character should say to prevent them (and the reader) drowning in sea of irrelevant prattle. Rather, write with intention and make every word count.