The Science of Dialogue
I've been asked many times over the years for various bits of writing advice, much of which I have covered in my video series, Olivie Blake is Not Writing, and on Tumblr under the tag writing advisements. In an attempt to organize these various posts and provide a central location for these topics, this will be the first in a series of blog posts on various writing subjects.
I've been praised often for the quality of my dialogue; I have also been told it is many things aside from good, such as pretentious or wordy. Thus begins lesson number one: writing is subjective, and as much as there are aspects of it that can be objectively defined as good, most of what people like or dislike about a piece of fiction comes down to a matter of art (something personal that resonates with its audience) as opposed to science (something that can be tested and proven as "correct").
In my opinion, good dialogue is 75% art, which means the majority of what makes it good can't be taught or explained. It comes down to what people like, what they come to a story for, or what vibes with their sense of humor. I am generally acknowledged for writing a certain type of banter filled with quips, wordplay, and unconventional diction. Most of that is a matter of style, and the bad news is it can't be taught. The good news, on the other hand, is that it can definitely be practiced. The only way to produce any type of dialogue well is to do it often, to do it thoughtfully, and to get better each time.
The remaining 25%, the science of dialogue, is the only thing we're going to discuss here.
First up: formatting. Most traditionally published works will have gone through several rounds of editing—which makes it unlikely that any incorrect or poorly formatted dialogue would send a reader running for the hills—but in a user-driven medium like fan fiction, mistakes in formatting your dialogue can mean the difference between someone choosing to move on to the next chapter or simply clicking out of the story altogether. (I use dialogue formatting as a litmus test for the quality/experience of an author—if it is formatted incorrectly, I usually do not read on.)
In terms of punctuating dialogue, these are the rules:
1. Put a spoken sentence in double quotation marks.
“This is a sentence.”
2. Dialogue tags (the "she said"/"he asked"/"they answered" parts) stay outside the quotes and get separated by a comma.
“You have a very sturdy presence,” said Hortense. “Like a solid end table.”
Thibaut sighed, “Basile's having a seance. Something about Christmas being a family holiday.”
3. If something happens before or after the dialogue, it gets its own punctuation.
Hortense screamed. “That fire was not an accident!”
is Hortense screaming first and then declaring that someone did an arson, which is different from:
Hortense screamed, “That fire was not an accident!”
which is Hortense screaming about arson.
4. Punctuation goes inside the quotes. If a dialogue ends with an ellipsis (…) or em dash (—), don’t add extra punctuation.
“I guess I’ll just keep talking about...” Hortense trailed off. “Thibaut, remind me, did we remember to pack Basile's jojoba oil?”
The same rule also applies with exclamation points and question marks.
“Is this a book club?” asked Thibaut.
“It's certainly not a kidnapping!” Hortense sighed.
5. Dialogue that is quoting something else ("nesting") goes inside the double quotation marks with a single quotation mark.
“Well, as a dear friend once said, ‘excess or death,’” Hortense declared.
The comma falls inside of the single quotation mark. Some will add a thin space ( ) between the single and double quotation marks to help with any optical confusion, but that is uncommon.
Also, while the same rule applies for either a comma or a period, a question mark or an exclamation point are different—they will fall outside the single quotation. These punctuation marks are considered stronger than the quotation mark, and so they win.
“Well, as a dear friend once said, ‘excess or death’!” Hortense declared.
A caveat: while the first example is an established grammatical rule for American and Canadian English, British or Australian English uses something called "logical" quotation that varies depending on whether the text in question is fiction or non-fiction. Obviously arranging things according to sense, something that varies from culture to culture (and, I would argue, person to person) is difficult to measure and essentially punctuation anarchy. In most cases the above formatting will be recognizably correct, but for the record, the British may place the single quotation elsewhere or even swap the double-single quotation marks.
“Well, as a dear friend once said, ‘excess or death’,” Hortense declared, or ‘Well, as a dear friend once said, “excess or death”,’ Hortense declared.
6. Always start a new paragraph when there is a new speaker.
“I would imagine silverware might be easier to steal than furniture,” said Blaise.
“I imagine it is, if one is a coward,” Thibaut replied.
7. If something interrupts the dialogue, it’s still part of the same sentence, so it remains in lower case letters.
“The thing is, there's so many kinds of curses,” Hortense said. “It seems rather close-minded to simply jump to conclusions.”
is different from:
“She's departed this world before,” Thibaut informed them gravely, “and believe me, she isn't thrilled about being back.”
8. Be careful that you maintain lowercase letters in the dialogue tag if it’s not a name/proper noun. Be vigilant here, because Microsoft Word and Google Docs will often try to "fix" this.
Wrong: “Where the hell are my brunch khakis?” He demanded.
Right: “Where the hell are my brunch khakis?” he demanded.
There are many suggestions—not rules, like the grammatical ones above, but commonly held opinions—as to which dialogue tags are acceptable. "Said" is obviously among the most common, and I do agree that in most cases, "said" is vastly preferable to something similar, like "stated." It's kind of like "utilized" and "used"—in almost all cases, the simpler word is better.
That being said, adverbs are often frowned upon in dialogue. "Said sadly" is less strong than something like "lamented" or "agonized," or a more onomatopoetic tag like "moaned" or "sighed." If you are someone who has been told to restrict your use of adverbs (I feel very meh about this as a rule; Stephen King has popularized the concept that adverbs are Bad, and while I disagree, it's definitely possible to overuse them) then one of the best fixes is to strengthen your verbs. So while something like "stated" (or worse, "intoned") is a BAD replacement for "said," a strong verb will go a long way if you're trying to indicate the way it's being said.
In terms of improving the content of your dialogue—aka what the characters are actually saying to each other—the rules get foggier. What I can tell you based on my observations is:
1. Act out your dialogue. If you stumble over your words while you're reading your dialogue aloud, the reader WILL stumble over it while reading. The most common problems with dialogue fall on a spectrum of either feeling flat (dull and lifeless) or feeling overcomplicated (wordy and tedious). In some cases this is a problem relating back to characterization, but that's a subject for another day. Both dialogue issues can probably be resolved by reading aloud in the voice or manner your character would use to speak.
If you're uncomfortable or unfamiliar with writing dialogue, I would do this with every single line until you do feel comfortable. Yes, I know that's a lot. It will require at least twice as much time to write a dialogue scene than it otherwise would. Eventually, though, the syncopation/rhythm of speech in fiction will become more natural, at which point you won't have to work so hard to accomplish the scene. Until then, it's kind of like that Karate Kid thing—developing muscle memory for how something should feel when it's done properly means you won't have to think so much when it's actually crunch time.
2. If you have to use a thesaurus, it's probably not going to work. Generally, dialogue can and should sound more natural than prose. It's also okay to fill it with idioms, slang, colloquialisms, etc., because those are common linguistic behaviors. If it's not something you would conceivably say in conversation, don't try to put it in your character's mouth.
Using a thesaurus is tricky in general—if you're looking for a word that's on the tip of your tongue but you can't quite remember, that's fine, thesaurus away. If it's a word you've never used before, try reading/using it in several different sentences to get comfortable with its connotations and implications before officially adding it to your writing lexicon.
3. The less you use dialogue tags, the better. In an ideal situation, the content of the dialogue itself should make it clear what manner they're saying it in. The better you know your characters—the more defined their voice is—the easier it is to make this obvious. A character who is always sarcastic saying something sarcastically shouldn't need a "said sarcastically" for the reader to recognize that Theo's just being Theo again.
Also, if there's only two characters in a room speaking exclusively to each other, you most likely don't need dialogue tags at all. Again, this depends greatly on how well the character's voice is established, but when the dialogue is good, the audience will follow the back-and-forth without having to ask themselves who is saying what.
In general, the more you write, the less you need to concern yourself with restrictions. A lot of writing rules are made to be broken, but breaking them out of inexperience will always be recognizable from breaking them as a stylistic choice. The more comfortable you are with the standard expectations, the more your style will develop in a way that feels natural and clear.