Monday, May 11, 2015

13 Week Novel—Week 11: Dialogue, Part 1

Why do so many "writers" not know how to write dialogue? I mean why don't they know how punctuation and capitalization in dialogue work?
If you don't know how the mechanics of dialogue work, readers question your writing ability. Image: Gianni Dominici
I need you to know this. If you don't, you will look like a total amateur. An amateur who didn't bother to look up the basics of writing. In other words, someone who doesn't care enough about writing to learn how to write.

Writing good dialogue, natural dialogue that is interesting, can be difficult to learn and may take years to get really good atbut the technical aspects are not hard.

Suppose you send your manuscript to an agent, a publisher, or a contest, and you have written in it, "I was wondering, Mister. If you are hiring in your store." The young man uttered mumbling with nervousness as he looked the old man steady in the eye with determination. The graying old gonif teetered on his heels for a moment before relinquishing that he "might be able to use the kid if he was quick on his feet."

I swear, for the love of cheese, if you send this to an editor and she doesn't send it back to you and ask you to resubmit it only after you learn how to write, then she is deperate for money. Or she is planning to rip you off. Or she is going to charge you four times the normal rate. Whichever it is, she is not going to return an impeccible ready-to-publish draft to you. That would require her to write it for you.

So learn the rules of dialogue.

I know, I know. You did notwould notwrite that. But it's a handy example that I made even worse to entertain myself.

Mechanics in Dialogue

So let's take a look at a little less terrible version of that excerpt.

"I was wondering, mister, if you are hiring in your store." The young man uttered. The graying old gonif relinquished that he "might be able to use the kid if he was quick on his feet."

There are a few things wrong with the mechanics here:
  • Punctuation/Attribution Problems
  • Direct/Indirect Quote Issues
  • Paragraphing
I mean, among other things.

Punctuation/Attribution Problems
"I was wondering, mister, if you are hiring in your store." The young man uttered.

The Rule: 
1. When the attribution (dialogue tag) introduces the dialogue, it is followed by a comma and the dialogue begins with a capital letter. 

Wrong: The young man uttered. "I was wondering, mister, if you are hiring in your store." 

Right: The young man uttered, "I was wondering, mister, if you are hiring in your store." 

2. When the attribution follows the dialogue, it is preceded by a comma that replaces the period at the end of the quote and the attribution does not begin with a capital letter.

Wrong: "I was wondering, mister, if you are hiring in your store." The young man uttered.

Right: "I was wondering, mister, if you are hiring in your store," the young man uttered.

3. When the attribution interrupts the dialogue, only the dialogue is in quotations with a comma separating the first half of the quote from the attribution and following the attribution. The second portion of the sentence does not begin with a capital letter, nor does the attribution.

Wrong:  "I was wondering, mister, the young man uttered, if you are hiring in your store." 

Wrong: "I was wondering, mister." The young man uttered, "If you are hiring in your store." 
        ...or whatever other weird way you can think up to screw this up. There are lots of variables in this one.

Right: "I was wondering, mister," the young man uttered, "if you are hiring in your store." 

Variation: If the attribution separates two complete sentences, the comma will replace the period in the first sentence, the attribution will not begin with a capital, and a period will follow the attribution. The next sentence within the quotation marks will begin with a capital.

Like this: "I was wondering if you are hiring in your store," the young man said. "I've always wanted to work here." 

Any questions?

Direct/Indirect Quote Issues
The graying old gonif relinquished that he "might be able to use the kid if he was quick on his feet."

The Rule: Quotation marks signify direct dialogue. Quotation marks are not used in indirect quotes.

Indirect can be thought of as a paraphrase or summary of what was said. It is not word for word as it comes out of the mouth of the character.

For instance, "I was wondering, mister," is what our boy supposedly said to the gonif. The gonif did not respond with, "might be able to use the kid if he was quick on his feet." This is obvious because, if he had been talking to the kid, he would have used the pronoun you, rather than referring to him in third person. So...

Wrong: The graying old gonif relinquished that he "might be able to use the kid if he was quick on his feet."

Right: The graying old gonif relinquished that he might be able to use the kid if he was quick on his feet.
        ...or...

Right: The graying old gonif relinquished that he "might be able to use" the kid, but only if he was quick on his feet.
        ... and because this is incorporated into the sentence without a dialogue tag, there is no comma.

Paragraphing
The Rule: Each change in speaker is indicated by a new paragraph. This helps avoid confusion about who is speaking.

Wrong: 
     "I was wondering, Mister. If you are hiring in your store." The young man uttered mumbling with nervousness as he looked the old man steady in the eye with determination. The graying old gonif teetered on his heels for a moment before relinquishing that he "might be able to use the kid if he was quick on his feet."

Right: 
     "I was wondering, Mister. If you are hiring in your store." The young man uttered mumbling with nervousness as he looked the old man steady in the eye with determination. 
     The graying old gonif teetered on his heels for a moment before relinquishing that he "might be able to use the kid if he was quick on his feet."


There is so much more wrong with this terrible little excerpt beyond mechanics. (The dialogue tags... ugh. Maybe we can come back to that another time.)

Now, writing good dialogue, the words inside the quotation marks, is something else. That's a whole other post. (Or several other posts.)

But if you follow the above advice, at least you understand the most basic mechanics of dialogue.

You have no excuse for not knowing dialogue conventionsespecially after reading this.

Got it?

Okay. Thank you for listening.

How are those 2500 words coming along this week?

Coming in a little late? Find out about the 13 week challenge here. And see the first week's activities here.  



Subscribe to get posts directly, or check back during the week of May 18th for the next installment.



2 comments: