"He said what?!": Mastering the Art of Dialogue

By Associate Professor Jen

Just when you thought it was safe to go to Fanfic 101, I have returned. I was kicking around various essay ideas, and then someone sent me a question about dialogue, or more specifically, punctuation in dialogue. I answered her as best could, though it was a rather unconventional question, and ever since I've been thinking about character communication and how to convey that to readers. It's especially crucial in fanfic, where you have to make the reader believe that you're channeling someone they see on TV every week.

The Basics

If you're posting fanfic on a web site, you should already know this stuff. But I'm going to cover it anyway, because it's obvious that what people ought to know, and what they actually know, are sometimes two different things.

1. If someone is speaking, the words that come out of his mouth should begin and end with quote marks. In the U. S. we usually use the double quotes ("") for speech. In books by British authors I've seen single quotes ('') instead. Whichever you use, be consistent.

In addition, you should use some other way to show what a character is thinking. I've seen people use underlining, asterisks, and hash marks. Again, consistency is the key. Once the reader knows, 'This means the character is thinking,' don't switch. It's confusing.

2. Punctuation and capitalization can be tricky sometimes. Remember that if the quote comes first in the sentence, you put a comma inside the quotes (or an exclamation point, or a question mark). For example:

"I think you'd better put down that gun," Harm said.

And if you want to put 'said' first, you don't need to capitalize it:

"I think you'd better put down that gun," said Harm.

3. Every time a different character speaks, start a different paragraph. I've read a few fics in which I could never tell who was speaking. Everything ran together. It's so easy to fix--just give the characters their space.

4. Beware the dreaded 'said-bookism.' This is an old writer's term referring to speech tags other than 'said.'

"Put down that gun," Harm mumbled.

Or, God forbid, "Put down that gun!" he ejaculated.

Mind you, I'm not saying you should never use a word other than said. But said is the kind of word that doesn't stand out in the crowd, it never sounds silly, and won't bring the reader to a screeching halt. Anything else should be treated like a sale on cake mix at the supermarket: limit two per customer. Read through a couple pages of your latest story. If you've used a word other than said more than once or twice per page, you might want to cut back. Be sure those words are actually playing a useful part in the story.

As a corollary, think about using character tags instead of 'he said'/'she said'. That is, show what the character is doing, which can give the reader more insight into what's going on in her head. For example:

"Close the door." Giles looked up from the book he was reading, frowned at Buffy, and took off his glasses.

See? No said, muttered, growled, or hissed. But hopefully you got the feeling that something was wrong.

5. Less is often more. A writer friend once told me that any time a character says more than three sentences in one quote, it should be considered a speech and cut ruthlessly. Again, this isn't true in every case, but it's often proved true for my writing. Speeches are for soapboxes. In real life, anyone that drones on and on is considered a bore. (Unless, of course, they're providing you with Valuable Writing Insights. But I digress.)

Advanced Dialogue Tutorial

Now that you're not going to make any of the mistakes that cause me to want to throw my monitor across the room, we can move on to deeper matters. You know what to do with those quote marks now, but what do you put inside them?

1. Assignment: Eavesdropping

Have you ever noticed that, in some stories, the characters talk like people from one of those practice conversations in French class?

"How are you?"

"I'm fine. How are you?"

"Fine. Did you manage to steal the Rambaldi artifact?"

"Well, I tried. But an extremely large man with a thick neck tried to break my arm, and then the ammo dump caught fire, and I had to leave without it."

"That's too bad."

Real people don't talk this way. Characters on TV don't talk this way, not even in really badly written science fiction shows. They talk over each other, interrupt, curse, display silent disapproval, or fail to listen to each other. Take an hour today, go to a local restaurant or coffee shop, and sit in a booth near some of the other customers. Get out your writing notebook, and jot down what you hear them saying, as close to word-for-word as you can. Listen for the speech patterns and rhythms, the catch phrases that an individual uses over and over. How often do they say 'um' or 'ah' or 'well'? Do they interrupt each other? Do they talk at cross-purposes? Are they getting along, or do you hear tension in their words?

When you've done that, watch a couple of episodes of your favorite show. Pretend you're eavesdropping on the characters, and ask the same types of questions that I listed above. Watch for mannerisms, too. How is the way Sydney uses her hands in speech different from Sloane or Jack or Vaughn? How do they show tension? How do they act when they're sincere versus dishonest with the other person in the conversation?

2. Go beyond the clichés.

One of my online writing groups was talking this week about overused character behavior tags--things like drumming the fingers or pacing to show impatience, or slamming a fist into something to show anger. Not that you should never use those examples, but beware of having everyone use the same character tags all the time. Every character is different.

To use an example from real life, I've noticed that my kids do different things when they're trying to lie to me. Ed's eyes tend to drift to a point somewhere over my shoulder, and he drags out his words. Emily, on the other hand, looks right at me with very wide eyes and speaks very clearly, as if that might make her more believable. Two very different techniques, but both are red lights for me in a conversation, depending on which child I'm talking to.

So, when writing, pay attention to the character. Get to know her inner workings, think about how she would deal with a difficult moment.

3. Make the dialogue work for you.

In fiction, as in real life, dialogue is more than just two people talking. You can build tension, convey valuable information (or misinformation) to the reader, and show insights into the characters and their relationships. Cut out the unnecessary chit-chat and give your readers the meat of the matter.

"I think you'd better tell me what happened." Vaughn motioned to the other chair, but Sydney stayed on her feet, her hands twisting together.

"I can't."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, I can't." She leaned on the back of the chair. "Can't you just trust me--"

"It's not about trust." Vaughn folded his arms. "It's about someone saving your ass and dying in the process."

You don't have to give everything away in a conversation. In fact, sometimes it's better to keep the secrets and avoid the issues--as long as you can ramp up the tension while you do.

In one of my favorite articles about writing romance, Jude Deveraux talks about revealing, or rather not revealing, character secrets in dialogue. She describes a situation in which the hero and heroine are trapped in a small, dark place, and the hero is clearly close to panic. The heroine gently asks him if he wants to talk about it. He says, "No." That's it. Just 'no.' There's a whole world of mystery there, waiting to be solved, and that kind of tension will keep your readers glued to the page or the screen.

3. Beware the Talking Heads.

No, not the band. The syndrome in which two characters sit and talk without any physical action taking place. Human beings fidget. They shift positions, pace, eat, tap their toes, check their watches and do all kinds of stuff when they talk.

Of course, the opposite situation can also be a problem--the two characters are so busy doing stuff, it slows down the conversation. Unless they're, for example, defusing a bomb, they're not going to be pausing between every comment. Try to find a happy medium--some talk, some action. If you're not sure whether it's working, ask your beta reader. Or try acting it out, to see if it's realistic.

With a little work and attention to detail, you'll have people asking you if you're quoting from an episode of the show that they've never seen, or saying that they wish you wrote for the show. And that's about the highest compliment a fic writer can receive.

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