Let’s Talk About It

Alright, this week’s blog is going to be about dialogue. It’s a problem for many authors and I think a large part of it has to do with the fact that in order to write good dialogue you have to write “incorrectly” and that just drives people up a tree.

However, despite the fact that some grammatical functions get ignored, there is definitely structure to be followed and rules to be adhered to. Except when you don’t. Grammar is funny like that.

The first thing I’m going to mention is formatting. I’ve read many situations where people have made the mistake of having multiple speakers in a single paragraph and that is a huge no-no. That’s one of those rules that doesn’t get broken unless you want to get your nose broken with a shovel by an angry editor. Alright, maybe it’s not that extreme, but some days I definitely think it might be.

When you’re writing dialogue between multiple people it should look like the following:

“Say it ain’t so!” Delilah shrieked, flapping her limp-wristed hands about.

“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

“Ohh, whatever shall I do?!”

“… Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” Rhett reiterated, shrugging ambivalently.

Now, you can see that there are two people in that conversation (which, I know, was half Gone With The Wind and half insanity, what do you want from me?) and it’s pretty clear which is talking at what point. That’s the reason that one puts the break in between each line of dialogue. Sometimes it won’t be a double-space and only a single, but there is at least a line break in between each section of commentary.

The reason for this should be pretty self-explanatory. If the dialogue were written:

“Say it ain’t so!” Delilah shrieked, flapping her limp-wristed hands about. “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” “Ohh, whatever shall I do?!” “… Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” Rhett reiterated, shrugging ambivalently.

It becomes far more complicated to follow and when there’s a lot of dialogue, particularly between more than two parties, that kind of thing would become rapidly unreadable. So the solution to that – and yes, this is required by grammar – is to use line breaks.

The next thing, which is almost as important, if not moreso, than the formatting (which is but an enter keystroke away from repair by an editor) is tone. I’ve seen a lot of people that write dialogue like it’s an essay: no fragments, no starting sentences with “and”, and no contractions. Let’s face it, who actually talks that way?

More to the point, where is your character from? If he’s from Oxford and has the education to go with his pedigree then maybe he does speak that way. However that’s about the only person that speaks like that. Even most college professors use contractions. Yes. Even ones with doctorates. I know, it’s horrifying, isn’t it?

So where does “Proper English” go? Right out the window. If you’re writing dialogue it has to be alive and that often requires that you read it out loud. You heard me, you need to read it in character, complete with the southern drawl if your character has one, and sound like a moron without fear! But you know what? It’s worth it. I promise. The result will be that half the time you will sit there and wonder what the hell you were thinking when you wrote that. Actually, it’s a good practice to engage in anyway (reading aloud), but it’s absolutely vital in dialogue since it’s supposed to be spoken and with that in mind you need to make it talk.

Use contractions irreverently, use fragments if that’s what the characters would do, be free, my pretties, free! Okay, so maybe I overdid it at the end but at the risk of sounding like the Wicked Witch of the West I’ll keep it in there.

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