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Writing Dialog, Part 2

In Part 1, I discussed the content of dialog and how attribution and its placement affect the flow of the story. In Part 2 (that’s this blog), I’ll discuss the punctuation and the attributions themselves.

 

Let’s look at the same examples.

 

“You can’t tell me that,” Peter growled, “without backing it up.”

“Oh yeah?” Fred pulled himself up to his full height, wielding his fist. “I can back it up with this!”

 

First, remember that in American English, the quotation marks go outside the punctuation that belongs with the rest of the sentence. In this example, you can see that there are quotation marks outside all conversational punctuation—the commas, periods, question marks, and exclamation points.

 

The attribution “Peter growled” is surrounded by commas, which tells us that his dialog continues afterward as part of the same sentence. Your brain catches the subtlety even if you don’t consciously notice it. This style lends a little breathless rushing to Peter’s speech.

 

Unlike Peter’s attribution, Fred’s activities form a complete sentence and need no open punctuation. His section of speech consists of three complete sentences and the attribution provides a pause. Fred’s anger is colder than Peter’s—he is the first to add violence to the mix but the pause in his speech tells us that he was angry before the conversation reached this point.

 

Peter growling instead of snarling, shouting, or saying tells us that he too has been harboring anger for a while. He has been apprised of something unwelcome, and, as we see by Fred’s response, Peter’s reaction to this news is not a surprise. Let’s look at the dialog with different mannerisms attached.

 

“You can’t tell me that without backing it up,” Peter said.

“Oh yeah?” Fred responded. “I can back it up with this!”

 

In this example, Fred could be whipping out a stock market chart or rushing into Peter’s office with an engagement ring, it’s pretty hard to tell. Moving Peter’s attribution to the end of his speech and simplifying the attributions by removing mannerisms had this effect. Let’s try another.

 

Peter said quietly, “You can’t tell me that without backing it up.”

“Oh yeah? I can back it up with this!” Fred responded, standing up.

 

We don’t know what they’re arguing about or even whether either one is angry. Peter is quiet and Fred has a physical response, but again, Fred could be showing vacation photographs, revealing his new pants, dumping coffee, or just about anything. The “oh yeah” seems out of place here, though, unless he’s very excited about whatever it is he’s about to reveal. Even then, I’d probably lop it off of a non-violent exchange as part of the “um,” “er,” “I mean” type of unnecessary veracity.

Elements like question marks and exclamation points should be kept to a dull roar, or everyone’s speech will end in an upward turn in the case of question marks and become quickly trivialized in the case of exclamation points. You don’t want your dialog to sound like a Batman comic. Peter’s speech is plenty intense with just periods and commas in the original example.

 

Let’s try young love again. Here’s that original example:

 

“Dana,” Arnold said, blushing. “Would you go to the dance with me on Friday?”

Dana was shattered. She had hoped that Mark would ask her first. “Can I tell you later? I’m not sure my mother will let me go.”

“Um, sure. Take your time.” He watched Dana walk away before he fled into the chemistry classroom.

 

In the first speech, there could have been a comma after “blushing,” like in the Peter and Fred exchange. I didn’t go that route because I wanted Arnold to have said Dana’s name as a complete sentence. He’s trying to get her attention. The attribution and description clearly goes with the first quoted bit, so there’s a period after it. You pretend the attribution isn’t there but get the bonus of a pause while you read it.

 

In the second speech, I wanted Dana to pause before speaking. We have to learn the reason or her non-refusal has a somewhat positive flavor; she might go if her mother says she can. I used two complete sentences to create a longer pause before she answered. Dropping the “Dana was shattered” sentence altogether makes little difference to the flow but plenty of difference to the meaning.

 

In the third speech, where Arnold has to deal with his humiliation, I originally cited his actions as an attribution with an action (“he said, and fled into the classroom”), but I decided that it was stronger if I used narrative to make a pause while he processed information. I wanted Arnold to be shy but not stupid.

 

Here’s the same exchange simplified.

 

“Dana, would you go to the dance with me on Friday?” Arnold asked.

Dana said, “Can I tell you later? I’m not sure my mother will let me go.”

“Um, sure. Take your time.” Arnold went to his chemistry class.

 

Punctuation and the content of the speeches didn’t change at all. Moving the attribution in the first speech isn’t much different from the original example, except now Arnold might be sure of the answer before he asks the question, for all we know. We don’t have any clues to tell us whether he is uncomfortable or smooth as glass.

 

Dana’s speech could easily be an honest answer now. We no longer have any clues about her motivation. That’s okay, if you are just starting the story and we don’t have (or need) much character information yet. Perhaps her duplicity is the exciting part of the story and you’ll get a big revelation at the dance.

In the final speech, Arnold’s “um” provides some pause in the flow of the story. Perhaps he wants to ask someone else to the dance if Dana says no, or perhaps he was truly expecting an eager agreement. Maybe he asked her on a dare rather than out of any sincere desire to go to the dance with her. He goes off to class, perhaps leaving Dana standing in the middle of the hallway. Or maybe he’s a nice guy and will quietly wait for her to ask permission from her mother. There’s really no way to know.

 

Not being explicit is a good way to invite readers further into your story. But if you’re mid-way through and character and motivations have been established, you’ll slow the pace if you don’t give your characters more to do while they talk. Near the end of the story, you can reduce specific actions to simpler attribution, because your readers will make up their own behaviors accurately enough.

 

In short, dialog uses the upside-down triangle theory of organization. There’s lots of detail and description in the beginning, less in the middle, and it goes straight to the point at the end. See? It always comes back to organizing principles. J

 

You can read my blog about organizing principles on my Web site or in this blog’s archives from February 2004.