As editors, we are often faced with correcting parts of speech and spelling. Lots of people have a tough time following all the rules of traditional grammar, and some opt to just throw them out the window. This isn’t always the best idea– especially for new writers. Grammar is something you truly have to master to fully understand how to disregard it and still be effective. So we have decided to try and help writers along. We will be doing short blog posts on grammar for a while to help the writers we work with and those who find and share us on the web with some of the fundamentals of great writing. Our first topic is writing dialogue.
I was once told that if dialogue is written effectively that the whole story can actually be told in dialogue. Over the years, I have discovered this is actually true. Writers don’t have to master a particular dialect or create a specific formula for writing dialogue for it to be successful. In fact, that would probably take most of the fun out of both writing and reading it. Dialogue should flow naturally, and it should provide insight into the characters, setting, and plot. Most of all, dialogue should always move the plot forward… no matter how slowly forward it may move.
Effective dialogue also needs to follow some basic grammar rules. Here are some of the main rules to remember:
1. Always keep your dialogue separate from your action. This means that something someone says should be its very own paragraph. Never place something someone says inside a paragraph of narrative. This not only confuses the reader, it completely negates the point of someone speaking. If it isn’t important enough to be separate from narrative, it can just be narrative.
2. When using tag lines such as HE SAID and SHE SAID, remember to put a comma after the word SAID. Then a space. Then beginning quotes. The comma is a signal for the reader to take a breath. Use it. Separate the narrative identifiers from the spoken sentences by forcing the reader to pause and switch gears. Think of the comma as a big flashing sign that says, “Use your fake voice HERE!”
3. When addressing another person in dialogue, always separate their name from the rest of the sentence with a comma. For example: “Hi, Bob.” The comma, again, forces the reader to pause. It lets the reader know that you are talking directly to someone and not about that person. You wouldn’t want people to think you were talking about a man named Bob that liked to fly high in the air, would you? Use the comma.
4. Always use names attached to dialogue in your identifiers if you are using 3 or more characters talking at once. There is nothing worse than having three women talking and every line is SHE SAID. Which she? If you can develop a pattern you are positive will stick throughout the conversation for two characters you can use the pronouns in some places, but try to limit them. With only two speakers, you can even leave out some of the identifiers for short conversations. If, however, you are using several speakers or two or more speakers of the same gender, try not to use pronouns in your identifiers at all.
5. Each speaker gets his or her own paragraph when they speak. This means that whenever the speaker changes there is a new paragraph. Even if the person only says YES, there is a new paragraph. This keeps the action moving forward and is key to using dialogue correctly. Think of The Robinsons. “Keep moving forward.”
Hopefully these few simple rules will help you out as you write your next conversation. Use your power as the writer to control your reader by effectively writing dialogue. It will keep the reader interested, prevent confusion, and help your writing improve. Best wishes and God bless!