A Couple of Notes on Dialogue

Note the first:

When you change speakers, you start a new paragraph.  Seriously, they should have taught you this one in grade school, or high school at least.  I’m starting to suspect that it gets neglected because nobody expects most students to ever need to write dialogue.  O tempora, O mores, what is the world coming to, and all that jazz.

Note the second:

When you’re writing a scene with a lot of dialogue, and feel the need to throw in small bits of action and stage business to break up the steady back-and-forth, or to show one speaker’s reaction to something the other person has said, the action bit goes with the dialogue belonging to the speaker who’s doing it.  To illustrate:

Not like this:

“I don’t know what you mean,” Joe said.  Jane looked at him with disbelief.

“Sure, you do.”

But like this:

“I don’t know what you mean,” Joe said.

Jane looked at him with disbelief.  “Sure, you do.”

Don’t make your readers have to go through a scene’s dialogue twice in order to be sure of who is doing and saying what. Accidentally confusing your readers is bad.

Confusing your readers on purpose is a different kettle of fish.  I personally don’t know why anyone would want to do it, but some writers do, and those writers have audiences, so if that’s your style, then go for it.  But if you’re going down that path, not confusing anyone by accident becomes more important, rather than less.

On Writing Forsoothly

“Writing forsoothly” is the term we like to use around the house for all the different varieties of bad pseudo-archaic diction that infest modern fantasy — historical and created-world fantasy in particular.  J. R. R. Tolkien is undoubtedly to blame for a lot of it, because his characters do like their elevated language; what unobservant readers miss is the way that Tolkien modulates his characters’ dialogue, moving effortlessly from plain vernacular to almost-archaic high formal speech and back again, depending upon the situation and the company.  Strider the Ranger has a much commoner way of talking than Aragorn the Heir to the Throne of Gondor, but at the same time they’re both recognizably the same guy.

It’s probably unwise to play with writing in extreme forsoothly unless you can at least approach Tolkien’s level of skill and language-awareness.  It’s a lot harder to do than it looks, and the failure mode is dire.  But if you’re determined to give it a try — and nobody ever makes any progress in this game unless they regularly try things that they aren’t certain will work — there are a few things it will help to do first.

One:  Ask yourself, “Is this really the direction my writing talent lies in?” and answer it honestly.  If your interior Magic 8-Ball refuses to yield up anything more specific than “reply hazy; ask again later,” find a kind but honest friend and ask them.  Kind, because you don’t want your self-image pulled down and stomped upon with hobnailed boots; and honest, because you’re not asking them for sympathy, you’re asking them for the truth.

Two:  Prepare yourself.  Read genuine period or formal writing until it dribbles out of your ears.  If you start talking in Shakespearean or Regency English at the breakfast table, you’re probably ready.  And a good thing, too, because at that point your friends and family are either bored stiff with your project, or convinced that you’re going nuts.

Three: Stop researching and write.  Don’t worry about getting all the nuances down perfectly; you can always polish the heck out of the language in your second — or third or fourth or fifth — draft.

Four:  Go find that kind but honest friend again.  This time, ask them if the archaic or formal language in fact worked; and ask them, also, whether they think you got it right but took it too far.  As with so many other things in writing, a light hand is best.

(For an interesting example of archaic diction done well in an unexpected venue, check out the historical romance For My Lady’s Heart, by Laura Kinsale, now available again in e-book format after a long while out of print.)

Another Thing Not to Do

If you’ve got a character speaking a line of dialogue and also performing an action, don’t get into the habit of always putting the action into a participial phrase  tacked on after the dialogue tag:

“This is an important announcement,” she said, taking her place at the podium and opening her notebook.

No.  It needs to be either:

“This is an important announcement.”  She took her place at the podium and opened her notebook.


She took her place at the podium and opened her notebook.  “This is an important announcement.”

Save the participial phrases for occasions when the dialogue and the action are truly simultaneous:

“Listen up, people!” she snapped, slamming the notebook down on the podium.

or when the action’s mostly a bit of stage business, there for characterization or setting-establishment or pacing:

“Listen up, people,” she said, shooing away a moth that was trying to fly into the Coleman lantern.

(Who gets to decide what’s important and what’s stage-dressing?  You do.  It’s your story.  Just remember to keep on listening to what it’s telling you.  And remember, audiences like variation.)

Peeve of the Day

On the subject of swearing, cussing, and general bad language in fictional dialogue:

Profanity and obscenity have their own grammar, and if you don’t know first-hand how to deploy it, don’t try to fake it.  Either leave the bad language out completely or seek out a trusted beta reader with a fluency in the vulgar tongue.  The explanation, “I’m going to be writing about this, and I want to make sure I get it right,” opens a lot of research doors, some of them in unexpected places.  It’s a rare human being who doesn’t appreciate being sought out for his/her expertise.

Period-accurate bad language seldom works as well as it should, because the shock value is lost.  Made-up future bad language, for its part, doesn’t have the shock value to lose.  In the latter case, the best bet is usually to go with contemporary expressions — or, as the science fiction writer James Blish once said, “The future equivalent of ‘damn,’ expressed in present terms, is ‘damn.'”  Sometimes this is also the best answer for historical bad language as well, though it can depend on the overall tone of the rest of the book; most of the time, a writer of historical fiction has to walk a tightrope strung over the twin pits of presentism and forsoothery (about which I will write a post someday) without falling into either one.

Which brings us around — finally — to my actual peeve:

It’s either dammit or damn it.  Writing it out as damnit, with the silent n included, makes it look like the speaker is cursing out the egg of a head-louse.

Who Said What When How?

I said I was going to talk about dialogue attribution.  Right, then.

By “dialogue attribution” I mean those “he said” and “said John Doe” and (less fortunately) “he commented/answered/stated/retorted/other-verbed” tags that get applied to lines of dialogue so that the reader can tell who’s speaking.  And I have a few points to make about them, in my peevish way.

First, you don’t need nearly as many of them as you think you do.  If your dialogue is doing its job properly, you aren’t going to need to identify the speaker every time the talking-stick gets handed over, because your speakers will sound like individuals and not all like each other.  If you’ve got an extended stretch of two-person back-and-forth, you can throw in an attribution every few lines just to keep things anchored; and if you’ve got a multi-person conference you’ll need to identify people as they jump into the discussion, and as often as necessary to keep your reader up to speed; but even in those cases, you don’t have to tag every single line of dialogue.

(How often is enough?  How often is too many?  Sadly, I have to tell you that you need to play it by ear — and if you haven’t got an ear for it yet, you’ll need to work on developing one.)

Second, you don’t need to get fancy with your verbs when you’re tagging dialogue.  When in doubt, remember that it’s hard to go wrong with a plain vanilla said.  Beyond that, you mostly want volume indicators — shouted, whispered, murmured, muttered.  (And for the love of Mike, don’t have your characters hiss things that don’t have an s– sound in them!)  Anything more than that comes perilously close to over-writing, and sometimes crosses the line.

And third, you don’t have to place the tag at the end of the line of dialogue every time.  You can put it in front:  Joe said, “It’s time.”  Or you can break up the block of dialogue and put the tag in the middle.  “It’s time,” Joe said.  “Let’s get going.”  In fact, if Joe doesn’t just have a couple of sentences of dialogue, but an entire paragraph’s worth of inspiring speechifying or careful instruction or closely-reasoned argument, don’t undercut its effect by slapping down a Joe said at the end of it with a dull and leaden thud.  Break up the block of dialogue early on to slip in the tag, then let the rest of the speech roll on to its effective climax.

“That’s it, then,” she said.  “We’re done for the night.”

One of Those Days

Every so often, a day comes along when absolutely nothing gets done.  Today was a day like that.

Well, I did make a beef stew and push on with the current editing gig, but as accomplishments go that doesn’t count for much.

I blame the weather, because — well, why not?

And just one heartfelt plea:  before you send out your finished manuscript, take a minute to go over the rules for English dialogue punctuation and double-check to make certain that you’ve been following them.  Pretty please? With sugar on top?

Your beta readers, editors, and copyeditors will thank you.

Say It

The simplest and best verb for dialogue attribution is said.  Plain and simple, and — as I think I’ve mentioned here before — effectively invisible.  Other verbs like replied, stated, mentioned, affirmed, and the like are also valid, but should be used sparingly and in proper context.  Replied only works when the speaker is responding directly to something somebody else has just said, for instance, and stated goes with declarative sentences in which a fact or opinion is being asserted.

And then there are the verbs which are not meant for dialogue attribution at all.  Smile, for example.  People don’t smile things, they say them.  They may say them smilingly, or say them, smiling, but smile does not equal say and shouldn’t be used as if it does.  The same goes for any other gesture or facial expression — no shrug or wink or grimace is the equivalent of speech.

I’m just sayin’.