Monday, March 12, 2012

Writing topics: DIALOG

I know it's possible to write a whole story, even a whole novel, without dialog, but I'm not skilled enough to do it. I'm sure my readers would fall asleep before too long. First of all, what is dialog?

Fred Astaire & Jane Powell in Royal Wedding
My Webster's Ninth defines the word as :

(1) written composition in which two or more characters are represented as conversing [[It's that "or more" that'll get you when you're writing it. ]]

(2) (a) a conversation between two or more persons; also: a similar exchange between a person and something else (as a computer)[[Does this mean I'm actually having a dialog and not writing a blog post?]]
(b) an exchange or ideas and opinions [[but probably not with a computer this time]]

(3) the conversational element of literary or dramatic composition [[maybe this is what we do in fiction]]

(4) a musical composition for two or more parts suggestive of a conversation

And how do you spell it? My dictionary also has two spellings, dialogue and dialog, and puts the longer one first, but life's too short to be typing a lot of extra letters, that's what I think.

Now, let's get down to how to do it, as a writer. The mechanics are simple: a new paragraph for each new speaker. Put the action of the speaker with his speech. For instance, don't write something like the following.

Harry came up the sidewalk. "Who's there?" called Mildred.

She wiped her hands on her apron and went to the door.

Give Mildred a new para and tack her action on behind her speech.

Secondly, Mildred is a down-home kind gal, so she's not gonna say

"Who is there?"

Nope, she's gonna say what she said up above.

Harry, though, is a Harvard man, third generation lawyer, and he'll answer:

"It is I, Harrison Ford Edsel Pinky the third."

So, when he gets into the living room, you won't really need to tell the readers which one is speaking. They'll know by the diction and word choices.

Talk of Clowns by Christian Rohlfs
However, thirdly, if two people have been batting ideas around for several lines, help the readers out and stick a tag on every fourth or fifth line at least, just in case they've lost track of which one is the down-home gal and which one is the Harvard lawyer.

Fourth, it is generally frowned upon in recent times to use tags other than "said". I don't mind a few, especially "shout" and "ask" and such. But a whole bunch of inventive tags get in the way of the story. Try reading this and thinking about what's going on.

"What in the blue blazes did you think, woman?" expressed Harry.

"Well, now, I don't know what in tarnation y'all are goin' on about," Mildred simpered.

"It is fairly obvious that you were present at the time the crime was being committed," Harry accused.

"Who says so?" Mildred argued.

"A minimum of six eye witnesses," Harry huffed.

Fifth, the other modern no-no (because the inventive tags as well as this following no-no were liberally used in non-modern times) is adverbs with the tabs. There's a name for them, Tom Swifties. Tom Swift, the innocent whom these are named after, was an intrepid boy scientist and hero of many books. The author(s) got tired of writing "he said" and "she said" and liked to mix it up, not only with "he cried" and "she stammered", but with adverbs so the reader would know exactly how the line was delivered.

Here's an example from wikipedia:

"Oh, I'm not a professor," he said quickly. "I'm a professional balloonist, parachute jumper. Give exhibitions at county fairs. Leap for life, and all that sort of thing. I guess you mean my friend. He's smart enough for a professor. Invented a lot of things. How much is the damage?"

"No professor?" cried Miss Perkman indignantly. "Why I understood from Miss Nestor that she called some one professor."

One such line was unintentionally hilarious, spoken by Tom Swift:

Tom Swift cover
We must hurry," said Tom Swiftly.

The puns/adverb became known as a "Tom Swifty" and contests are conducted to see who can concoct the funniest ones. For instance:

  • "I'll have a martini," said Tom, drily.
  • "Who left the toilet seat down?" Tom asked peevishly.
  • "Pass me the shellfish," said Tom crabbily.
Because of the overuse of adverbs with dialog tags (I guess that's what to blame it on), they are not used unless necessary, and then sparingly.

A Nautical Argument by Charles Napier
Sixthly, if you are conducting a conversation with more than two people, you'll have to use more tags than with just two. It's too confusing for the readers if you go on and on without saying who's speaking.

And seventh and last, a whole page of witty repartee is okay occasionally, but in general you should break the dialog up with something else every fourth or fifth line. It's best if this is not an empty action. Better if it says something about the character or gives the readers some information they need.

Do you have other dialog "rules"
I took my information from "Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary" and

Illustrations from Wikimedia Commons  and, all public domain.


  1. Those are some very good rules Kaye, though I have to profess complete ignorance to the fourth!

    I generally use an adjective instead of 'said' when I think it's appropriate, especially in my first draft. At that point, it's more about getting the words on paper for me (I usually get rid of quite a few when I'm editing, as that's when they become glaringly obvious). The same for adverbs.

    ps. Dialogue is the UK English spelling

  2. Some good tips on here. I will follow your blog.

    Jon -

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