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September 4, 2009
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If you’re writing fiction, the dialogue is arguably one of the most important parts. And it’s the bit that’s the easiest to mess up, if we’re strictly honest. And why not? There’s so much going on in that single sentence that any number of them can go wrong; voice, character, tone, point of view, punctuation. We’ll start with punctuation, because I’ve already written that bit.

Punctuating Dialogue

Go here. I was originally going to copy and paste that part of the lesson into this lesson, but then the thing wound up being ten pages long. So, read that, and then come back to this if you feel you might need help with the mechanical bits.

When to use Dialogue

Right. So, you’ve got a story all set up in your head (or on a piece of paper if you’re inclined to pre-write), and it’s great. Your hero is blasting through space with a whole heap of misfits, and you’ve just come to the poignant moment where someone’s heart and soul is about to be bared before the entire crew.

The thing to keep in mind when writing fiction is that you are not writing a script or a screen play. The reader won’t have the same luxury as a film or theatre-goer of having everything interpreted by a director, and then acted out before him. You have to do the acting. Most times, this is easy, since people aren’t apt to giving long, Shakespearean monologues in day-to-day living.

° “It’s even warmer,” Nicholas pointed out, taking off his jacket. “Why’s it so hot?”

As we discussed earlier, by sticking the tag into the middle of the line, it forces the reader to imagine that the character is talking rather calmly, and that he’s not rushing to get the words out. You can also stick a bit of action to the tag, so that you’ve got an actual reason to tag in the middle of the line.

It’s not always just one person talking. In fact, it rarely is. People don’t (usually) just talk to hear the sound of their own voice. They talk to communicate; to exchange information, or even just get angry at one another and shout a bit.

° “Danny didn’t seem very happy,” Rose stated uncertainly.

“You know him?”

“Yeah,” Rose responded as they walked into the TARDIS. “He’s Aunt Irene and Uncle Frank’s boy. How did he know about Calais?”


The pacing in this bit is fairly subdued. Just a bit of reflection, really. Because there’s not a whole lot in the way of action going on, it’s okay for the lines to be a few sentences long. You don’t want to get too long, though. We’ll touch on that in a bit.

° “EXTERMINATE!!” One of the remaining Daleks shouted, aiming its blaster for Saxon as he rushed out of the airlock.

“Bob?” The dog shouted desperately. Moments later, Walker pushed through the mayhem and followed his friend.

“Wait!” Nicholas shouted after the officer, not sure if he should follow or not.

A loud blast rocked the entire ship, stunning everyone left for only a few moments. One of the two remaining Daleks had been blown in half,

“I missed my daughter grow up because of you bastards!” Trillian screamed harshly from behind everybody. She gripped tightly to a very large blast gun, its sights aimed at the invading creature.


Here, we have the big climactic moment. Nearly all of the characters are present and accounted for, and there’s absolute mayhem on the ship’s bridge. Scenes like this are a delicate balance, because you want to get the details of the battle down, but you don’t want to compromise the pace.

The first thing you want to do is keep the lines short as possible. No more than two sentences at a time. And each time a character say something, tag the line with action. The Daleks are shooting at things, the officers are running in fear, and the astrophysicist is ready to kill every damn thing on the ship. We’ll get more into painting verbal pictures in a bit, but part of those pictures is to do with pacing your dialogue.

But say you’ve come to a scene where, goddamnit, your character has got something to say, and there’s no force in the universe going to stop him saying it all. The absolute last thing you want to do is flood the page with an entire paragraph (or more) of nothing but quote. After about two sentences, your character will stop being a character, and just become a voice in your reader’s head.

° Nicholas took a moment to think about what Janine had said. “Is that was this is about?” he asked. “This, right now?” He looked down at Travis, stunned, before returning his attention to Janine. “If you think that there’s been a single day gone by that I haven’t regretted what happened, I think you’ve got some rethinking of your own to do!” he said, his face turning red. “If you want to take it out on me, then fine! That’s why I moved out to Gloucestershire anyway.”

You’ll want to inject some acting somewhere into the text. As a general rule, you don’t have to start a new paragraph if no one new’s started talking yet. In this example, the protagonist is having a rather spectacular row with his ex in a pub, who he’s by chance run into during a visit back to London. Even as he’s pouring out all of his emotions onto the sticky, bitter-covered floor, he’s still doing other bits of acting.

And this bit brings us to another point about dialogue.

What can my Characters Say?

In the example immediately above, the character is so upset that he’s tripping over his own words. In one sentence, he used “think” in one form or another three times. One thing to keep in mind is that the films and the television shows we watch don’t really portray “real” dialogue. If you’ve ever watched the bonus features on a DVD, you’ll almost certainly have seen “gag reels” where the actors have tripped over lines or got them backwards or just said the completely wrong thing.

Because that’s what people do. As we’re speaking, we don’t have the luxury of a writer putting the words down, and then an editor or a script supervisor going through and fixing bits up.

Verbal tics are a great way to make a character feel more real. Let them occasionally repeat themselves or say the wrong word. Slang’s great too. Just keep in mind that you don’t want to put any of these into the narrative.

° Danny shrugged. “I’unno,” he said. “But I’d put a fiver on it that that yob there on the scooter prangs it here in a bit.”

Nicholas sighed. “And if he crashes his scooter, it’s our responsibility to help him.”


Just bear in mind that slang can be like a foreign language to some, and you might want to subtly translate it for your readers not from the area. And balance it out. If you’ve got a character who’s rather a bit relaxed with their grammar, make sure that another character actually paid attention in class. Too much slang or missing bits from sentences, and your reader’s bound to get bored and walk away.

Children

Some people find it a bit difficult to write children, because they run into one of two issues. Either the child sounds too old, or too young. Children don’t always have the best grasp on grammar, and depending on their age, their vocabulary might be rather limited as well. Kids are also a bit fearless, in that if they don’t know a word for something, they’ll just say the next-closest thing they can think of, even if it is completely and totally wrong.

° “He’s the best superhero ever!” Cameron explained loudly.

“He’s not either a superhero, you pillock,” Robert said, giving Cameron a heavy shove. “He’s a spy!”

° “Don’t touch it!” Nicholas barked, slapping Jamie’s hand away from the bloody mess on his arm. “Hurts.”

“You should clean it,” Robert pointed out. “You got all that duck mud all over you.”

“With what? The duck water?” Nicholas asked. “No way.”


The single best way to learn how children talk is to talk to them. If you’ve got young kids in the house, volunteer to take them out to the park for a few hours to give poor mum a rest, and rather than just sitting on the swing talking on your mobile, actually play with the kids.

One more note on Slang

If you’re putting slang into your dialogue, please, please, PLEASE make sure that it’s time and setting appropriate. You’d never hear an American say something like, “that’s the dog’s bollocks,” or a colonist call someone an airhead.

When it comes down to it, if you’re not sure, err on the side of caution and don’t use it. It’s better to come up with something slightly less-fitting that you do know the meaning for, than to say what you think sounds better, and have it be completely wrong.
Suggested by :iconjulietcaesar:

A few pointers on when and how to make your characters say something.
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:iconsmalltownactor:
smalltownactor Featured By Owner Sep 3, 2012  Hobbyist General Artist
This is very useful but you got an automatic favourite for the Doctor Who.
Reply
:iconindigoskyes:
IndigoSkyes Featured By Owner Sep 2, 2012  Hobbyist Writer
Your tutorial has been featured by :iconthewrittenrevolution: for the September 1st Writers of the Revolution feature! Congratulations! :heart:
Reply
:iconmorgana-jones:
Morgana-Jones Featured By Owner Apr 15, 2012  Hobbyist General Artist
Wow your tips are really helpful :)
And you appear to be a Doctor Who fan which makes you awesome :)
Do you think you could give me some tips on my writing? [link]
Reply
:iconmorgana-jones:
Morgana-Jones Featured By Owner Apr 15, 2012  Hobbyist General Artist
Wow your tips are really helpful :)
And you appear to be a Doctor Who fan which makes you awesome :)
Do you think you could give me some tips on my writing? [link]
Reply
:iconmorgana-jones:
Morgana-Jones Featured By Owner Apr 15, 2012  Hobbyist General Artist
Your tips are really helpful :)
And you appear to be a Doctor Who fan, which just makes you awesome
Do you think you could maybe give me some tips on my writing?
[link]
[link]
[link]
Reply
:iconjamiwami:
Jamiwami Featured By Owner Feb 3, 2012
All your writing tips are so very, very helpful. :) Thanks so much for posting them! :3
Reply
:icon0anime0lover0:
0Anime0Lover0 Featured By Owner Aug 20, 2011  Student Writer
so we don't use the comma when someone is shouting something

example 1-
"Get away from there!" He shouted.

or

example 2
"Get away from there," he shouted.

I think it's the first one i'm just not that sure.
Reply
:iconmonstroooo:
monstroooo Featured By Owner May 24, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
This is a really good guide :) I'd love to host it in #WritersInk, if that's alright?
Reply
:iconthebeckster1000:
TheBeckster1000 Featured By Owner Nov 29, 2010  Hobbyist General Artist
Good guild lines!
Reply
:icondjoseph:
Djoseph Featured By Owner Sep 4, 2009  Hobbyist Writer
Thanks! :)
Reply
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