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Presenting Dialogue

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1 Presenting Dialogue on Tue Jun 23, 2009 2:02 pm

Presenting and Developing Dialogue
This Article is not concerned with the actual dialogue itself but rather with its presentation. Dialogue, being primarily the speech and possibly thoughts of your characters must differ considerably from the narrative itself in both appearance, grammatical and punctuation rules as well as formation and content.

How should I quote it?

That is why we generally enclose dialogue within quotes in order to clearly identify it from the narrative. And here comes the first dilemma: Should we use a single or a double quote? Most authors go for a single quote as in ‘Yes, of course,’ rather than the double quote as in "No way, I'm not doing this!" though some publishing editors do require that material presented to them is strictly with double-quoted speech. The main reason for the former choice is simply that the double-quote normally signifies quoting something of a third person whereas the speech itself is not being quoted but being spoken by your characters. In fact, sometimes you will find your very characters needing to quote something or someone else themselves, which is where you would use the double quote as in:

"Well," said John with a smile, as grandpa used to say "It's never too late to try!", so I guess I'll give it a go after all"

What about punctuation?

What about punctuation such as commas, periods (full stops for the British), spaces, etc. Where do these come in? First and foremost following an end-quote always put a single space as in:

˜Yes, of course" he said.

Secondly, and this applies to all forms of writing whether dialogue, narrative, or any other form, ending punctuation (such as commas, periods, exclamation or interrogation marks, etc.) always immediately follow a word and are always followed by one single space.

Incorrect forms:

No space after comma,or period.
Or one preceeding a ,comma or a final period .
After the end._ _Should be only one space.
Do not capitalize characters in MID sentence for emphasis.

Correct Forms:

Single space after each comma, or period. Like this.
No space following an " opening quote nor prior to closing quote. " But one space follows before next sentence.
Always capitalize first character in sentences, ˜Even in dialogues!"

Next do ensure to keep different tracks of the punctuation held inside and outside of the quoted dialogue. In the previous example above there is an intentional omission. Though it may look fine, yet the statement within the quotes is left unfinished and requires a proper ending as follows:

“ Yes, of course,” he said. OR “Yes, of course!” he said.

While your sentence is still proceeding with the 'he said....' bit, the quoted speech had ended and therefore requires some termination. Though a period would seem more appropriate, quotes or no quotes, it is still one sentence and therefore a comma is in order here. Why inside and not outside the quote? Simply because a use of an exclamation mark (as in the example above) or of a question-mark would be placed at that position.

At other times the quoted speech is just pausing while your actual sentence is ending. This is presented in this manner:

“Darling,” he whispered softly. “You know I love you, don't you?”

The comma following the initial “Darling” is necessary because firstly the actual spoken sentence continues across both quoted pieces and also because the first segment contains a natural pause, which pause the author has utilized to insert the descriptive method of delivery. Alternatively, the period following “softly” is also required as it is the ending of the narrated sentence as opposed to the quoted speech. Do note that even though the second speech segment is a continuation, the initial Y is still capitalized as it still follows a period.

At times you may even come across something like:

“Oh that's great,” he said with a sigh.

- OR -

“Oh that's great.” He sounded quite annoyed.

Whereas in the first example the speech is terminated by a comma for the same reasons explained above, the second example terminates with a period. This is due to the text following the speech in the latter case being a separate statement.


What about speech modifiers?

Speech modifiers are all those descriptive 'add-ons' to quoted speech normally voice by the narrator to indicate who is saying what. But do you really have to add all those annoying “he said” and “she said” all over the place? Can’t you just put straight speech as follows:

Ok, who was it?
I... I don't know, I can't remember...
What do you mean, you can't remember? You don't forget things like that, now do you?

Seems fine doesn’t it? No real need to add much to that, in fact most modern authors take this approach. The main problem here is that at times it is not so apparent who is saying what. This may be helped out by a little introduction on the first line as follows:

He stopped pacing nervously around the room and faced her.
Ok, who was it?
I... I don't know, I can't remember...

That way it is quite clear who is starting the first line and following lines may be easily attributed alternately to the two characters. The opening line is supplying added information, we know there are two people, a man and a woman. We also get to know that something is wrong and reveals some tension. More importantly, it clearly places him in the active role and therefore it is natural for the reader to assume the following dialogue to be spoken by him and in what tone.

This approach may be fine for a few lines, but when conversations get a bit longer or a third person joins in, things can get a little complex. So a little more pointers may be required here and there. Let us a add a third person to our little conversation and see how we can still keep things clear:

He stopped pacing nervously around the room and faced her.
Ok, who was it?
I... I don't know, I can't remember...
What do you mean, you can't remember? You don't forget things like that, now do you?
Yeah that's right! You don't forget things like that!
Hey Jeff, you keep out of this. This is just between Tom and me, okay?
Sue's right Jeff, this is between us for God's sake!
Waddya mean keep out of it? You're my little brother, dammit!

Confused? Not likely! Not only should you know exactly who is saying what, but you have also been indirectly introduced to the three speakers in the conversation without a single word of narration. Not only that, but we also get to know all their names, and their relevant inter-personal relationship. The only flaw here is that on Jeff's opening line, it may not have been so clear as to the third persons introduction, but the subsequent line clearly addresses that issue. So with just a session of dialogue we have managed to throw in a lot of additional info without burdening the reader to get at it.

You will notice however, that I have utilized first-names within the presented dialogues, while in a different article I will actually tell you to avoid this. The reason for my inclusion of names here is mainly in that this is an argument and not normal speech. Still, contradictory? In a way yes, but this all goes to show you that in reality there are no basic rules in writing, just people’s ideas and guidelines. Handling things with care, a writer may get away with anything and that basically means presenting an end-result which sounds pretty natural and plausible to the reader.

Let us now consider a different approach. Let us see the same piece with some descriptions now. It may look something like this:

Tom stopped pacing nervously around the room and faced her.
“Ok, who was it?” he demanded furiously.
“I... I don't know,” started Sue desperately trying to keep a steady voice.
“I can't remember...” she managed finally.
“What do you mean, you can't remember?” Tom shot back at her. “You don't forget things like that, now do you?”
“Yeah that's right!” Jeff was quick to affirm. “You don't forget things like that!” he echoed.
“Hey Jeff, you keep out of this.” Sue was indignant, she wasn’t about to let him on this as well. Besides, she had to get the attention momentarily off her; just enough to come up with a decent explanation.
“This is just between Tom and me, okay?” she almost shouted back at him.
Tom fell for it like an idiot. “Sue's right Jeff, this is between us for God's sake!”
“ Waddya mean keep out of it?”

Jeff couldn't believe this. No way he was going to be left out of this, not after all that he'd been through for both of them. Been through? More like what she'd put him through, and now they want him to keep out of it! Okay, maybe she's right but not Tom, not his own flesh and blood. He couldn't do this to him.

“You're my little brother, dammit!” he blurted out angrily.

Now, that's not exactly the same, is it? There is so much more color and so much more information in there. It's not just a case of who is saying what, but we're throwing hints and leading the reader. We're giving off details which may never have been grasped from the previous version and most importantly, we are putting in some emotions in there.

Which one should you use? Depends on what you wish to convey in that particular moment. You do not have to choose just any one version for the whole book, but may adopt the different approaches where and when required.


Alternate Dialogue Modifiers

Quite often we fall into a trap of using the same dialogue modifiers over and over again but English is a rich language and with some thought, various alternatives always exist...

He said, muttered, stated, declared, voiced, continued, tried, expressed, went on.
She asked, questioned, demanded, requested, queried, wanted to know
He smiled, grinned, laughed, mused, and grimaced.
She spoke loudly, angrily, shouted, screamed, hollered, squawked, yelled.
He scoffed, jibed, jeered, flouted, called out.
She said softly, said gently, whispered, murmured, mouthed, with a low voice.
Yes, okay, quite, definitely, of course, sure, surely, by all means, fine, right, I accept.
No, no way, definitely not, of course not, surely not, I'm not going to, I refuse, you're kidding? what?
She grunted, moaned, muttered, said gruffly, uttered.
He pressed, pushed, pressured, cornered, demanded from (her).
She promised, challenged, tried, attempted, pushed, forced.
He warned, informed, indicated, explained, briefed, suggested.
He said at last, finally, after some time/thought, later, eventually, some moments later.
She answered, replied, responded, asked back, acknowledged, nodded, negated, agreed.
He anticipated, foretold, predicted, guessed, assumed.
She said dearly, with satisfaction, with warmth, coldly, curtly, politely, loudly, softly, gently.
He denied, would not have it, refused, negated, contradicted, resisted, declined.


Various Presentations/Suggestions

“Okay,” he promised (reassured) her
“Not now,” she warned (admonished, notified, discouraged) him
“I don’t know,” her voice was low, “maybe tomorrow.”
“Yeah! I bet,” she scoffed at him.
“It’s ok,” she eventually told him.
“Hey!” Nigel challenged him,
“Ok, then,” she said at last.
“Damn her,” he moaned.
“She took it badly,” Dan went on doggedly.
“What was that?” she muttered.
She looked him up and down as he approached her. “Blessed are the poor!” she murmured.
“Oh come on!” protested John.
“No I didn’t!” he was quick to deny.
“It’s no trouble at all,” she brushed aside his protest.
“Yes,” she answered without hesitation.
“My mother wanted it,” Nigel explained.
“What?” Dan curled his lip,
“Well, I drive a Ferrari!” Nigel began to laugh, shaking his head.
“What’s wrong?” Dan demanded, his smile fading.
“Oh no!” she giggled.
“I’m not a virgin,” she said proudly
“Shall we then?” tried Jack.
“Your room?” he asked and she nodded her approval.
Her eyes glittered with anticipation. “Where’s Dana?” she grinned at Dan.
“Right on, doll,” Nigel agreed with her.
“Well, I’m not too sure about that,” Dan answered tactfully.
“He’s not your boyfriend?” Nigel was startled.
“She’s gone!” Dan was taken by surprise.
Dan looked at him quickly. “We’re going where?”
He slowly shook his massive head. “I’m really sorry.”
“What do you mean?” Diane looked puzzled.
“That was much better,” she finally admitted.
He smiled. “So it was you, after all!”
“No it wasn’t,” she was quick to answer.
“You’ve got a room here?” He stared at her.
“Yes?” she encouraged him.
Nigel dropped his eyes to the floor.” Yes,” he finally agreed.
“Oh no, not again,” she grumbled.
She looked at him with almost fear in her eyes. “That’s cruel, Nigel.”
“Please hurry,” she called anxiously.
“Maybe,” he paused looking straight at her, then slowly shook his head. “No, we’d better not.”

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