Friday, February 28, 2014

Dialogue, part two

Post by Catsi Eceer, co-founder

Last time around, I talked about the actual words your characters say. Here's the link to that post. This time, we're going to discuss another important part of writing dialogue--Grammar and dialogue tags.

The grammar of dialogue is fairly simple--Start a new paragraph every time someone starts talking, and use quotation marks to indicate when someone is speaking. For example:

I chewed the inside of my lip, working up the courage to ask the question I’d wanted to for a week. “Um... Where were you two at?”
“Does it matter?” Ferry snapped.
“Uh, no,” I said. “Just curious.”
Ferry narrowed his eyes at me. “What do you know?”

 (Just a little excerpt from the novella I'm working on right now.)

Easy enough. There's another bit of dialogue grammar I'd like to mention, though. While you should use good grammar, avoid passive voice and weasel words, etc., in your prose, in dialogue those rules are exempt. Which in English means that your characters can use "was" and "tried" and "ain't" as much as they wants, so long as it goes with their personality. 

Enough English-teacher-Catsi, now. Dialogue tags.

The word "said" is used so often in writing that it's become something of an invisible word. Read through the example at the beginning of this post again. Which dialogue tag stuck out to you: when Ferry spoke, or the narrator? Ferry's, right? Because the narrator just said his line. Ferry snapped. While I've been told to avoid using any other word than said, told, asked, whispered, shouted, and yelled, I often am a naughty little girl and use words like threatened, snapped, and demanded. I agree that said is an invisible word, and I agree that when you use a different word it pulls the attention away from the dialogue and to the tag itself. You probably don't want to be using "expostulated" and  "reiterated," but I don't think that "threatened" is too distracting. But that's just me, so if you're happy with your said's, then use them.

But there's an alternative to dialogue tags. There are four lines of dialogue in the example, and only two of them have a dialogue tag attached. The other two have action beats. Instead of sticking "said Bob" on the end, you could put "Bob wiped the sweat from his forehead." It tells us who's talking, and what they're doing. We can see what Bob is doing, rather than just hearing him talk.

Okay, one more little bit of grammar. When you end a line of dialogue and put a dialogue tag on the end, you end the line with a comma. If you're using an action beat, end it with a period. If you want to end your line of dialogue with a question mark or exclamation mark, then it doesn't matter whether you're using a dialogue tag or action beat. It'll end the same either way.

Hope you guys find this helpful! If you have any questions, comments, or just want to chat about grammar, post in the comments. I'd love to hear from you. :)

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