Dialog-arrhea can be a very embarrassing issue, and difficult to discuss, even with your Book Doctor, so I will try to handle this issue gently. Many aspiring authors are unsure how to handle the dialog of their story, which can lead to having the dialog all come out at once in a blast of characters talking without any actions or reactions by the characters. The reader is left with a mess, sometimes making it unclear which character said a particular line. My aborted attempt to read Atlas Shrugged failed mostly because the copy I had ignored almost all of these rules, and it was such a mess I couldn’t even look at the page after awhile. So here are a few tips which can help you keep your dialog moving at the right pace, with good consistency.
Dialog has a specific format which must be followed. Here are a few of those rules.
- Use double quotes “ to indicate when something is said aloud.
Single quotes ‘ are fine when something is written down, and if your characters have a form of telepathy, choose a convention and stick with it. In one of my books, the telepathic conversations use * instead of “. In another I use Bold Italics when an angel speaks without using actual words.
- Each character gets their own paragraph when they speak or do something.
If one character is doing something while the other is speaking, the actions and the speaking each get their own paragraph, unless they are jammed into the same sentence, such as:
“I wouldn’t recommend doing that,” Jon said as Bill stuck a fork in the socket.
Don’t be afraid of using LOTS of paragraphs. They are like fiber, keeping things regular and consistent.
- Know when to use a comma and when not to use a comma.
“That’s right,” he said.
As you can see, the full sentence doesn’t end at the close quotes mark. However, if you use other punctuation for the dialog, like a ? or !, then you don’t use a comma.
“That’s right!” he shouted.
“That’s right?” he asked.
Sometimes the sentence can include more than one section of spoken words. In that case, you once again need to know when to end a sentence and when to use a comma.
“Well,” he began, “you don’t look dead.”
- Write it better than you actually speak it.
One of the ironies of writing dialog is that you can’t put a tape recorder in a room and write down exactly what was said, unless you are trying to quote the conversation exactly. What I mean is, your characters need to be more literate than they would be in real life. This is like the makeup an actor puts on so they will look normal under the bright lights used to film. It doesn’t read naturally if you write things the way they really are.
- Intersperse actions and reactions.
If the only thing on the page is what the characters say and the character identifiers, (he said, she said) it’s as boring as watching paint dry, and it doesn’t give the reader the full story. Your PoV character should react to what the other person said, even if only in their mind. They don’t have to let their emotions show on their face, but the emotions are there, and they need to be part of the dialog when you write.
If your characters are walking down the road, or in the middle of a sword fight while their talking, you need to show the actions they take between sentences. Some sentences of dialog get interrupted by boggart and finished only pages later, when the boggart is dead. Don’t let the dialog blind the reader to whatever else is going on at the same time.
Making the dialog flow properly isn’t easy. It’s one of the things which distinguishes aspiring authors from published authors. No matter how compelling your plot or characters are, if your dialog comes out as dialog-arrhea, no one is going to want to look at it for very long.