The power of dialogue
After action, dialogue is the second most powerful tool for bringing fiction to life. It is when characters are quoted while they speak to each other. However, dialogue is not a speech transcript, but a distillation. As an exercise, you might record a conversation between two or more people, then convert it to text. It will be practically incomprehensible, with long, rambling sentences, some of them incomplete or mixed with others. Little ums and ahs will pepper it, and people will speak over each other. By convention, written dialogue converts this to something a person can be expected to understand in one reading.
Here is a little extract [from You Can’t Escape Destiny, second volume of The Doom Healer series] to show the power of dialogue:
Mike said, “Don’t they have food in New York?”
“Life’s too busy to waste on eating, is all.”
“You need to look after yourself better.” They walked through a door, along a corridor to a large open place.
Matt sighed. “Claire used to…”
“That was five years ago. It’s time to build a new life for yourself. By the way, you still visit her murderer?”
“Poor bastard has no one else.”
They entered an elevator. “That’s why you’re on this team, bro. You do realize, 99.99% of people wouldn’t understand?”
“Of course. But hating him wouldn’t bring her back, and I’ve turned his life around.”
The few words the brothers say to each other are worth several pages of description and back story.
Also important is to realise that dialogue is ONE of four tools. These should be constantly interlaced with each other. The extract above contains three bits of action. These are low key, merely background, but break up what would otherwise be word ping pong.
You might enjoy reading an old post on that topic, What’s wrong with word ping-pong? In summary, it is where dialogue goes on and on and on, in a vacuum, typically delivered by the identical voice with different names attached.
This leads to the next point: a person’s voice.
Each person has different, unique habits of speech. Even though the actual mouth noises cannot be reproduced in print, such individual variations can. Here is a short extract from my From Depression to Contentment:
“So, let me understand this, Giles. When your mother dies, you intend to kill yourself. When was the first time you decided to do this?”
“When she had a mini-stroke, I can’t remember what the doctor called it.”
“That’s it. I realized, she is getting old, and won’t need me forever. This was before I met Shirley, and… before I lost her like I knew I would.” He looked ready to cry, but put on a calm face. “No one else cares the slightest whether I live or die, so, why not?”
“Are you certain? Surely you have friends?”
“Nah. Not a one.”
“If I did a survey of all the people who know you, what would they say?”
Shrug. “They don’t know the real me. Yeah, I’m of service whenever I can, because they matter.”
“THEY matter? You don’t?”
Another shrug, and a nod.
First, again notice the interweaving of dialogue with little actions from Giles, described as the therapist sees them. But also, Giles speaks like a working man, while the therapist like a professional, although you probably wouldn’t notice this while reading the book. The different choice of words, as well as the content, clearly identifies each speaker.
In a story I am writing, one character expresses agreement with “sure.” Others use different words. “Well…” “Now…” and similar words to start a sentence can similarly “belong” to a character. Readers probably won’t pick this up (unless they are editors), but it will still help to distinguish speakers.
One person might habitually speak in short, sharp sentences, while another will use longer, rounded ones.
How do you achieve this? The best is not by deliberately and self-consciously writing that way. Instead, use a little trick: BECOME the character in your imagination, and then it’ll come naturally. With practice in writing, this will be automatic and intuitive, but I describe a formal technique in A Magic Trick for Writing.
The writer’s job is to make reading as easy as possible. We want the reader’s attention to be fully focused on the story, not used up on wondering about things like, “Is George saying this aloud, or only thinking it?” or “Hang on, who said this?” One very frequent signpost to help with this problem is some version of “said.” That is, we use a word or two to attribute a quote to a character. Attributions are also referred to as “tags.”
How tags should be used, if at all, is one of the never-ending controversies of the writing world. I find such arguments to be rather silly. The criterion is whether communication is clear, and the language “invisible.” You can read about invisible language here.
If my use of tags enables my reader to become immersed in the story, it’s fine. If it attracts attention to the language rather than to the content, it needs to be changed.
Another little essay, Better dead than said? discusses this in detail, with examples. In summary, only use a tag if otherwise there may be confusion about the identity of the speaker. Make the tag as unobtrusive as possible.
A different tag problem handicaps many inexperienced writers: location. When you do use a tag (as infrequently as possible without loss of clarity), it can be at the front of the sentence, or at the end, or in the middle. It will be coupled with a name or pronoun, and again, it can come before or after it:
Jill said, “I don’t know where I’ve put it.”
“Have you looked at its proper spot where it’s supposed to be?” asked Harry, sarcasm dripping from his voice.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” Sally said, “Mother put something in its proper place?”
“I wish you two didn’t always gang up on me!” Jill rushed out the door and slammed it behind herself.
The point here is that the location of the tag should be varied. Having it always in the same spot very quickly becomes obviously repetitive. Once a reader notices such a pattern, the story is spoiled.
English is actually several languages, which differ from each other in both obvious and subtle ways. Presentation of dialogue is all too obvious to people in the book trade, and probably invisible to everyone else.
Here are the conventions that apply to every version:
- Do not use quotes for thoughts that are quoted word for word. It’s best to put them in italics instead. Some experts are against the use of italics for this purpose. I don’t know why — signposts of any kind are good, because they reduce reading difficulty.
- When you have a person do something and say something, keep it all in the same paragraph. Do not have a line break before the speech.
- When you switch to another person, start a new paragraph.
- Do not ever have two single quotes (‘’) side by side instead of a “.
- Minimize the use of tags (he said, or the equivalent). Certainly don’t have more than one in the single sample of speech.
- Minimize adverbs (descriptive words) in tags. They are a form of telling rather than showing. So, “he said excitedly” or the like is not much good.
- When a character makes a long speech so that you need to quote more than one paragraph, start the first paragraph with a quotation mark (typically, “). Start each of the succeeding paragraphs with a “ as well. However, only end the last paragraph with a “.
Because this can lead to misreadings, it’s a good trick to break it up so there is something between succeeding paragraphs, for example the current witness’s thoughts about the speech. Then, each paragraph of conversation can have quotes at both the beginning and the end.
An alternative is to signal such a block quote by using a suitable formatting device, such as a left margin indent.
- Use double quotes for speech.
- Punctuation marks go inside the quotes.
- When you have quotes inside quotes, have the outside ones double (“) and the inside ones single (‘).
Rest of the English-speaking world
Places outside the USA are more flexible and forgiving:
- Either double quotes (“) or single quotes (‘) are acceptable to indicate dialogue, but you need to be consistent within the one document. Since the single quote is the same symbol as the apostrophe, translating from English to American is a pain, so I use double quotes.
- If you use single quotes, a quote within a quote is a double quote.
- Punctuation marks can go inside or outside quotes. Outside is more logical, but again, there is the translation issue.
Read a novel, any novel, and study how the author deals with the various aspects I’ve covered. Mind you, even famous authors can follow unwise practices. For example, Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt has not a single quotation mark within it. Spoken words and thoughts are just there as plain text. I found this very hard going for the first couple of chapters, then I got used to it. All the same, this is a strong negative. Why not make the reader’s task as easy as possible?
Did you find this essay interesting? Read more by Bob Rich at his blog page
Pirates and treasure, the timeless theme in adventurous fiction, takes center stage in Mikel B. Classen’s second edition of Lake Superior Tales: Stories of Humor and Adventure in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula
Published by the Modern History Press (November 2018), the book includes ten stories that span the 19th century through present day, each tale packed with action, adventure, humor, and suspense. Written for the general adult audience, these stories have something of interest to offer every reader. For those who know or have a fondness for the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, this is perhaps the perfect winter read of all.
Mikel B. Classen is a veteran writer and editor with three decades of experience in journalism, writing, and photography. But more than anything else, it’s the author’s own living experience in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan that enriches his word with regional flavor. In his words:
“Many places have maritime history, logging history and mining history, but the Upper Peninsula has them all, thrown together in a cultural clash that makes the region unique.”
Classen contends that as a writer it is impossible to not be inspired by a place not only steeped in beauty, but its rich history is evident throughout the peninsula.
By its content, the second edition of Lake Superior Tales is mostly adventure and part humor. The latter, at times, draws from characters based on real residents of the region. And it has its quirky side, like the main character in the story “Bullets Shine Silver in the Moonlight” that remains unnamed throughout the story.
Of the adventurous stories, the author tells that these tales are the results of ideas that periodically popped into his head. Yet, in one way or the other, the regional history reflected in their development. For instance, he tells about the history of gold mining in the Upper Peninsula and how it influenced the narrative of story “The Wreck of the Marie Jenny.”
“I had finished writing Bullets Shine Silver in the Moonlight and I started wondering where the gold in that story came from and what the story of the shipwreck was. The only places in the U.P. where gold was actually found was north of Ishpeming and Marquette. There were two mines north of Marquette and the Ropes north of Ishpeming. If any gold was going to sail out on Lake Superior it would have come from Marquette and the Iron Bay. The real mover and shaker of those days in Marquette was Peter White, one of Marquette’s founding fathers, hence his appearance in the story.”
Classen’s ingenious weaving of history and legend creates a tapestry of folklore as varied as the peninsula itself.
To learn more about Mikel B. Classen and to see more of his work, go to his website at www.mikelclassen.com.
Modern History Press
c/o Loving Healing Press
5145 Pontiac Trail, Ann Arbor, MI 48105
9781615993970, $27.95, HC, 186pp
Synopsis: Autumn Clarke survived the car crash that killed her parents. To help her cope with PTSD, she adopts Chrissy, a Shih Tzu with a remarkable secret. Chrissy is also the only witness to the mysterious death of her pet parent.Autumn vows to find the truth behind his death with the help of Chrissy, the neighbors and an attractive detective. Can Autumn unravel the clues while trying to heal Chrissy’s trauma and overcome her own devastating emotional wounds in the midst of a dangerous murder investigation?
Critique: A wonderfully entertaining and deftly written mystery, “Attorney-At-Paw” is the first of what will hopefully be a long term series starring one of mystery’s most unique canine sleuths! Certain to be an immediate and enduringly popular addition to community library Mystery/Suspense collections, it should be noted for the personal reading lists of dedicated mystery buffs that “Attorney-At-Paw” is also available in a paperback edition (9781615993963, $18.95) and in a digital book format (Kindle, $5.95).
Sanchita Karma and Other Tales of Ethics and Choice from India
K. V. Dominic
Modern History Press
9781615993949, $25.95, HC, 146pp, www.amazon.com
Synopsis: K.V. Dominic is one of India’s leading contemporary English poets. In “Sanchita Karma and Other Tales of Ethics and Choice from India” he takes his readers on a trip to India in an anthology of his original short stories.
Dominic’s love for his native country is exposed through stories that cover a range of humanistic concerns, including women’s empowerment, the natural environment, government and corruption, the education system, crime, the power of compassion and the question of how much influence we have in our own destinies.
Critique: Each of these twenty carefully crafted and thoroughly engaging short stories is a true literary gem. Of special note is the unusual step of including four reviews collected in a section called ‘Commentary and Criticism’. While very highly recommended for community, college, and university library collections, it should be noted for personal reading lists that “Sanchita Karma and Other Tales of Ethics and Choice from India” is also available in a paperback edition (9781615993932, $15.95) and in a digital book format (Kindle, $3.03).
Mary Cowper, Reviewer