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DIALOG by Fish
by Fish
Fish -- all rights reserved


Dialogue is important. I believe fiction is carried by the characters that inhabit it. Dialogue is the means by which characters communicate their goals, fears, thoughts, and desires with one another. Characters can be used to explain concepts to the reader or to familiarize your reader with the background of your world, and they can do this easily through dialogue.

Characters also forward the plot through interaction and, yes, dialogue. I feel it is critical to get this element correct.

Proper Punctuation

Please pay attention to the following tips on punctuating dialogue. Because dialogue should sound as natural as a conversation, there is little more frustrating in a story, for me as a reader, to struggle through stiff dialogue with poor structure. Bear in mind the rules of general syntax, add these rules, and use them to make your dialogue live and breathe.

Note: I am going to discuss American usage for double quotation and single quotation marks, because I am most familiar with it, and because I'm an American. So sue me.

A complete or partial sentence spoken by a character is contained within double quotation marks. The punctuation for the sentence goes inside the end quote. If there are multiple sentences to be spoken, you may put them all within the same marks.


"How's it going?"



"That's a nice hat. It really suits you."

Informing the reader of the speaker of a quotation is called an attribution, such as he said or she asked. When the character's speech ends at a full stop, replace the quoted period with a comma. Do not capitalize the attribution unless it is the pronoun I or a proper name (which would be capitalized anyway). Note again that the only one below that changes is the period. Other punctuation remains the same.

"Hello," he said.

"How's it going?" I asked.

"Rats!" she screamed.

"Well-" he began.

"That's a nice hat. It really suits you," he said.

When the attribution comes first, follow it with a comma and then the speech. Do not change the punctuation in the speech itself. Remember, the attribution contains the subject and the predicate of the sentence. When you use an attribution, the speech is part of the same sentence, not a separate sentence.

He said, "Hello."

I asked, "How's it going?"

She screamed, "Rats!"

He began, "Well-"

He said, "That's a nice hat. It really suits you."

An attributive sentence is a statement. You are telling the reader, "This character said the following." Do not use a question mark after an attribution.

"How's it going." I asked? WRONG!

"How's it going?" I asked? WRONG!

"How's it going?" I asked. RIGHT

An attribution can be used to break a speech into pieces. If the attribution comes at the end of a character's sentence, punctuate as above: change a period into a comma, but leave other punctuation the same. Do not capitalize the attribution. The remaining sentence can stand alone, without an attribution, in the same paragraph as the first sentence.

"Hello," he said. "It's good to see you."

"How's it going?" she asked. "I haven't seen you in a long time."

"Rats!" she screamed. "That was my last chocolate!"

"Well-" he began. "I'm not sure."

"That's a nice hat," he said. "It really suits you."

An attribution can even break a speech's sentence in two. In such a case, the first section of speech, the attribution, and the last section of speech are parts of the same sentence. It is only necessary to capitalize the first letter of the sentence (and, of course, any names). Put a comma at the end of the first speech, and after the attribution, as follows:

"Good things come to those who wait," he said, "or so I'm told."

"What am I bid," the announcer asked loudly, "for this fine Ming vase?"

Breaking a sentence in two with a dash is a bit trickier. I always end the first speech with my dash, end quotes, the insertion, another dash, and the remaining speech. I usually only do this when I wish to insert an abrupt or immediate action into the speech without indicating that the speaker paused. I don't usually do it for a simple attribution. As an example:

"We have to catch that madman-" he pounded the table for emphasis- "any way we can."

"If you had-" he was almost shouting now- "you would have treated him with more respect!"

Breaking a speech with an attribution gives the reader a clue to the pace of the speaker's delivery. It is almost always best to break a sentence at the point where the speaker would naturally pause, where it sounds most natural when spoken. People pause for added drama in real-life speech. This is a way to simulate the same thing in fiction.

"That is what I intend to find," he said, "out."

does not work as well as

"That," he said, "is what I intend to find out."

Remember, an attribution is a speech word, such as said, asked, screamed, growled, snapped, etc. Do not use this kind of punctuation when the character is performing other actions. There are borderline cases such as shrugged or wanted to know but in general if it is unrelated to dialogue, make it a separate sentence. My rule of thumb is, roughly, does the verb make a speaking noise?

He grunted and set down the chair. "There had better be beer and pizza in this for us."

"Possibly," I said with a smile.

Beware of the attribution trap! At the very beginning, writers use he said, she said to the exclusion of all else. Later, when the writer thinks he is now an expert, he evidently feels that baby words like said are beneath an Author of Quality. He begins attaching every sentence with every attribution in the dictionary (growled, shot back, consoled, persuaded, agreed), presses non-conversation words into attribution service (thanked, smoothed) and even makes up a few that don't exist (understanded, gambitted). Every attribution has an adverb, too (grittingly, angrily, smilingly, happily, energetically, urgently, etc).

Don't do this!

Conversation words are supposed to be invisible. They're flavoring, not content. The reader should not notice the author's intrusion into dialogue (and it is an intrusion into the pace and flow) unless the author has something important to contribute. Out of five speeches, I use said with two of them and a more complex attribution with one or two of the others. Use nothing at all with the last one. This isn't a hard formula, obviously; you shouldn't be counting sentences with an eye to filling quota. Just be wary of the trap here. The words he said are nicely invisible, and they're meant to be.

Use a new paragraph every time a different character speaks. There are rare exceptions to this rule, but as I've always said, you have to know the rules before you're allowed to break them. Until you understand the basics of dialogue structure, don't go wandering off.

Every once in a while, use the character's name instead of a pronoun, too. This way the reader can easily keep track of who's speaking. I do this especially if the characters speaking are all the same gender, or more than two are engaged in the conversation.

For a very long speech that takes up more than one paragraph, there is sometimes an optional end quotation mark. Pay attention here, because many writers get this wrong. If the first paragraph of speech ends with a quotation mark, and the second paragraph of speech begins with a quotation mark of the same character continuing to talk, omit the first (ending) quote.

You must still punctuate everything else as normal.

If the first paragraph ends with, or the second paragraph starts with, an attribution, you're not allowed to omit any punctuation. And long, by the way, means to me more than six short sentences of speech. Don't break paragraphs every time the character pauses.

"To be or not to be," he mused. "That is the question.

"Whether 'tis nobler in spirit to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, . . . "

When one character is quoting another character, use single quotes enclosed within double quotes. I'm sure you want to know now what happens if one character quotes another character quoting another character, but if you have to ask, you probably don't need to know just yet.

"I asked him what he thought of the new worker we had hired, but he said, 'Don't bother me, I'm busy,' and went back into his office."

A partial quotation doesn't need punctuation other than quotation marks. I usually only do this when I want to retain the precise words the quoted character would have said, for reasons of accuracy or simple flavor.

We asked the boss if he wouldn't mind buying pizza for the staff that Friday, but he called it "regrettably frivolous" and wouldn't even discuss the matter.

Putting quotes around a single word is to indicate someone had said the word, not to add emphasis. Quotes are not a replacement for italics! Quotes are not a replacement for boldface!

When you put double quotes around a particular word, it usually means something like the following: I am using this particular word because someone else already had, even though I don't really believe that the word is true, or that this is the right word. This technique is something of a hint to the reader that the thing referred to by the word probably isn't what the word says it is. You're telling the reader, somewhat slyly, not to trust him, or to think carefully about the true nature of that object.

We finished six weeks of field maneuvers in Utah, then returned to our "home" at Fort Lewis.

After she was captured by the people of the village, the "witch" was sentenced to death by stoning.

This technique is not to be overused. It need not be used every time that object is mentioned. It need not be used for every word that you think had a hidden meaning to it. The reader would much rather hear what did happen than an account of things that seemed to happen but which he cannot verify. It is not a good idea to make your reader constantly guess if you're lying to him.

Sentences that use this technique can often remove the quotes and add the word alleged or so-called instead and the meaning should still be fairly clear.

Thoughts as Dialogue

Sometimes the author wishes to write out the thoughts of a character explicitly. There are different schools of thought about this, depending on your particular editorial style. Given the complications between email and web pages, between longhand script and professional publishing, it is ultimately more a matter of typography than of writing.

My main concern when detailing a character's specific thoughts is to be sure the reader knows immediately she is seeing thought rather than speech. My method of doing this is to omit the quotes and use italics when possible. This distinguishes the line immediately for the reader-it is not spoken aloud, it is only a thought.

Follows is an example why not to punctuate thought in the same way as you punctuate dialogue.

"You wanted to see me?" she asked, closing the door behind her.

"Yes," Mr. Gibbon said. "Susan, the company has decided to let you go. Please have your desk cleaned out by five o'clock."

"You bastard! After all the years of service I've given this company? How dare you!" Susan thought.

It may be startling for the reader to realize at the end of Susan's tirade that she was only thinking such things, instead of saying them aloud. The reader may be frustrated or bemused to find he has been fooled. I say if you're going to fool the reader, do it on purpose-and this technique may be a way to do it. However, don't fool the reader accidentally because it was too much work to write the sentence clearly the first time.

It is a matter of preference and of your publishing medium whether to use italics. Regardless, it is best to move the attribution she thought closer to the head of the sentence so the reader gets an early indication. I would set it this way:

"You wanted to see me?" she asked, closing the door behind her.

"Yes," Mr. Gibbon said. "Susan, the company has decided to let you go. Please have your desk cleaned out by five o'clock."

You bastard! Susan thought. After all the years of service I've given this company? How dare you!

Dialogue Isn't Real

Stories aren't reality. A story is only a simulation of reality. A human being sees, hears, thinks, feels, touches, tastes, smells, and reacts all at the same time. The act of writing, however, is a linear assembly of grouped letters that replicate word-sounds over which the reader moves her eye and gathers meaning in a step-by-step process. The writer is limited to writing one word at a time and, in most cases, describing one sense at a time. It is difficult in writing to describe synchronous or simultaneous actions because of the linear nature of the written word. (Also for this reason it is important to use the right words.)

It is important to remember this most of all in dialogue. If you were to transcribe an actual conversation it would be full of hesitation, repetition, interruption, and simultaneous talking as both people tried to get in their arguments. Meanwhile, as they speak to one another, each person is probably engaged in some activity; each person has her own body language or expression; and things in the environment may interrupt or become prominent at inopportune times, breaking the thread.

"Hey, how's" Mark came into "it going?" the office.

""It's been a" Mark leaned against the Eileen looked up "long day," doorjamb at him "and I can't wait to" she pushed her blonde hair back "go home." wearily.

"How did that order go" Mark leaned to the right " earlier" to steal a "today?" look down "The big uh big one" Eileen's collar "uh I can't think you know" of her "the one, the guy in the" yellow dress "gray suit? The school" Mark could see "board guy"a bit Eileen turned slightly "or principal" her bra to hear the phone "or whoever he" ringing "was." in the other room.

This is a very simple example of trying to describe truly simultaneous events, and it's difficult to write and even harder to read. I haven't even tried to describe much of the environment or other sounds, or even the character's thoughts. Nevertheless, this is more like the order that it would actually happen in real life. It might make an interesting avenue for an experimental form of writing, or as an exercise, but is quite a challenge both to create and interpret. The art of story-telling, from oral tradition through 'Net fiction, hasn't changed significantly in four thousand years, and now is not the time for an inexperienced author to change all that. Remember this! Your job is to craft dialogue that seems real, even though you and I and the reader all know that it's only an approximation at best.

The following tips are meant to help you keep your dialogue fresh and realistic without compromising clarity. Remember, a simulation by its very nature means that some of the rules of the real world have to stand aside. One of them is simultaneity; the other is authenticity.

Dialogue Should Sound like Real People

When I write dialogue, I say it aloud. I listen to the way the sounds go together. I compare this to the way I know real people speak. How do I know this? By listening to real people, of course. By knowing myself; by remembering past conversations with others.

Dialogue can be hard to make sound natural unless the writer has had experience talking with others, or at least in listening to others. However, there is no better substitute than listening to real people.

As I already mentioned, a story is a simulation of reality, translated through you the writer and onto the page. For this reason, I prefer to use my own reality as the standard. I read other books, of course, and I've been known to read comics; I watch television (rarely) and films (often). There is a problem, however, in using other media as your standard of reality.

What is this? Filtration.

I'm sure many of you have found online translators to convert English to French, then tried converting from French back to English. What you end up with is not often particularly close to the original meaning.

Stories, and especially dialogue, all work in a similar way. If you're trying to write the way another writer does, you're translating an emotional dynamic of a character that's already been translated once by the original author.

Television and movies are worse. Acting media have at least two separate translators between you and the reality. The screenplay or teleplay was crafted by a person attempting to capture the essense of a character, and then translated again by the actor or actress playing the part. "I've been given these words," the actor says. "I have to say them, so now I have to find a way to make a character to whom these words come naturally." The reality is further filtered by the director, who chooses camera close-ups over medium shots; by the editor, who can alter the pace of dialogue; and by the musical score, who can add a previously non-existent emotional dymanic into a scene by changing the background music. All of this means you are being shown a simulation of reality based upon the interpretations of these different people.

Watch people! Listen to how they talk! I was recently at my grandparents' beach house at a family get-together listening to a conversation between by cousin and his two friends, all of whom are in the Air Force. They're all young, two men and one woman, and my cousin and the girl are in a not-serious relationship, from what I can tell. I enjoyed speaking with them, but even more, I enjoyed listening to them. The girl had a very unusual way about her, for she was very direct about her relationship with my cousin. She knew it couldn't last beyond their Air Force affiliation, and said so. I can still hear the way she spoke. My cousin's other friend was half- Philipino and from San Francisco, and listening to him was an education in character as well. They might both make it into a story, together or separately, or elements of their personality will be filed for later.

In short, I don't base my characters on what television shows me. Television isn't real, either. How well it translates reality depends on how well it's been written, and how good the actor is.

Dialogue and Grammar

People do not always speak with proper grammar, so your characters need not do so either. Proper grammar is much more evident on the page, after all, than it is spoken aloud. To give your characters a natural way of speaking, it is acceptable to permit them substandard grammar or syntax, as long as you're consistent with that character.

Note here that I mean dialogue. The formality of third-person prose is not the same as that of the words spoken by individuals. Your characters may speak in slang and colloquialisms as well, as long as the meaning is still clear to someone not from the area.

In my notes on character, I explain that everything the character says is an opportunity to do characterization. It is often better to characterize by using the words the person says, rather than by adding words of attribution. Someone who speaks perfectly is as distinguished as a character who doesn't seem to know how.

"Hell, I ain't got that kind of time, I ain't even got an hour to go get the truck washed, you know that," he said.

"Your predicament is one with which I am familiar," the other responded. "However, I have been authorized to reimburse you generously for your time."

The first character speaks in a number of spliced-together sentences. The second speaks with grammatical precision. If nothing else, without names or other identifiers, the two characters can be easily distinguished this way. This is an easy to way help your characterization, too.

Dialogue and Slang

Slang and colloquialisms aren't precisely the same thing. Neither is identical to a regionalism. In addition, you may find a character speaking with local sayings or folk wisdom. These build the character for the reader and give shape to that character's thoughts.

Slang is an informal word used as a substitute for a more common word. Think of it as the kind of word you'd use in a letter to your friend, or possibly in conversation, but that you wouldn't put into a business memo or into the newspaper.

My dogs and me was cruising, and this pig runs us down. He holds us all night. When I finally got sprung in the morning, I hit my my cube twenty after and the man gives me a pink slip. I was screwed.

This short paragraph has nothing to do with domesticated animals or pink lingerie. It is thick with slang terms. If the reader knows the slang and relates to it, the meaning is clear. Otherwise, it is an impenetrable mess. Characters can use this kind of slang if the meaning is clear to the reader. (Or if the meaning is meant to be unclear.) Most of the time it's best to give the character slang that can be interpreted, in context, a little bit at a time. Eventually the reader will become familiar with it, if she wasn't already.

This is actually much the same technique a writer could use for an alien race, or for elves, or any character who injects his speech with arcane or foreign terms. It adds character, it can make dialogue more realistic and natural, but remember not to do so at the expense of losing your reader in a maze of nonsense she doesn't understand.

A colloquialism is a word or phrase that is used when speaking but which is not often used in writing. This differs from slang in that slang is more commonly written down. Think of the word loquacious, which means a person who likes to talk a lot; it's the same root word.

"So I'm, like, and he goes, like, 'okay,' and I go, 'well, all right, then.' So then, like he takes and he goes and we get a whole nother one, because like the first one was like soo-ooo, you know. And later, I'm like so, you know, bleah because it was off or something. I had to take and get some milk, because I was like ugh. I'm never going there again."

It's probably clear from this example that the speaker would be much easier to understand if you could see her face and watch her hand gestures. If you think about it, you may even speak in a similar way yourself at times. Characters can speak in a more toned-down version of this, but again, be sure not to lose your reader. The dialogue is for his benefit, not the character's.

A regionalism is a word or phrase peculiar to a region, a culture, or a locale. This is much easier to understand than the above two distinctions. In New York and places on the American East Coast, people stand on line for the movie. On the West Coast, people stand in line. In Britain, it isn't a line, it's a queue. However, if the address of the ticket office is Water Street, New Yorkers say the cinema is on Water Street and Londoners say it is in Water Street.

British English omits phrases that American English requires, at times. They might say a hat with bells on and we might say a hat with bells on it. They may say I feel a fool when we say I feel like a fool.

In the American South, the phrase is cut the lights on instead of turn the lights on. In parts of the upper U.S. midwest, a person might say the grass needs mowed instead of the grass needs to be mowed or the grass needs mowing. Menus in America refer to non-alcoholic drinks as beverages and alcoholic beverages as drinks.

Collective nouns in British English, such as gang, are described as plural nouns, as how are the gang today? Americans call it a singular noun, as there is only one gang, and say how is the gang? Americans like sports, the British like sport. We do math, they do maths. We take a vacation, they go on holiday.

It gets worse. A suspicious proceeding in Britain might be considered dodgy and a freight-hauling land vehicle a lorry. I can't think of a word close enough in meaning to, and as versatile as dodgy, but an American might call it a Mickey Mouse operation or call it iffy or shady. We usually call lorries trucks or semis. Further, an argument in America might be a fight and we would never call it, as the British do, a row. Most Americans don't know how to pronounce it properly, in fact, in that context.

Still less clear are regional phrases which cannot always be interpreted through context. Easy as pie and piece of cake come to mind. There's nothing inherently easy about pie, but nearly all Americans know what the phrase means. In Britain the phrase might be and Bob's your uncle. It makes no more literal sense than our phrase about pastries, but the meaning, within its region, is well-known.

Everyone here, I think, knows the almost stereotypical Australian greeting g'day. Less well understood abroad is the Americanism howdy. I say it all the time without thinking about it. My stepfather said it once to an Austalian, who must have learned it from a manual, because his response to howdy was fine, thank you. Yes, howdy is a substandard contraction for how do you do but in America we don't expect an answer. And even less commonly heard, at least in America, is the Britishism wotcha.

This is the danger with regionalisms. They don't always make a lick of-that is, they don't always make sense. Yes, they provide flavor. (Or flavour, if you like.) And regionalisms help further give a character shape and definition. Just beware using them to excess, especially the esoteric variety. Make it clear to your reader what is being said, through context, or through the reaction of other characters.

As with slang, these hints also apply when you decide to make up your own terminology and your own local mannerisms. Use them at first in a way that allows the reader an intelligent guess, especially if it's a phrase you intend to use a lot.

I don't have access to any books or guides on the variations in English as it is spoken around the world. If this is something that you would like to pursue, consult online with people from that part of the world, or invest in a book that explains the differences.

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