Tag Archives: conversation

Getting Conversant with Conversation

If you have more than one character in your story you will have to write dialogue. Even with just one character dialogue is possible. One of my favourite resources on dialogue is Dave King’s Self-Editing for Writers. Actually, it’s a terrific book all round.

Here’s a brief dialogue.

“Ayyoop, them stars shur is purty tonight,” said the grizzled old cowboy.

“Bah!” Bob snapped whitheringly, “Stars are just gas, like some people I could name.”

“Sorry,” said Cookie as he let loose another fecund cloud of gas. “Beans always gets to me.”

“Then why does you only cook beans?” Stan coughed. The fire burned blue as the three men held their breath. “Is that there star gettin’ bigger?”

Wait a minute, three men? I was sure there were four. The problem is that Stan and the old grizzled cowboy are the same person. It’s important in dialogue to keep the attribution consistent. If you are having an old grizzled cowboy talking, then he needs to stay an old grizzled cowboy through the whole dialogue. If you had, Stan, the old grizzled cowboy, then you’d be OK. The exception to this rule would be if the character is introduced during the dialogue.

“Just call me Stan,” the grizzled old cowboy said. And you can safely do so for the rest of the dialogue.

While I’m talked about Stan, let’s talk about dialect. Dialect is fun to right. We hear the character’s odd speech patterns in our head. This is just how he sounds. Just be aware that it may work differently for the reader. The reader may have no clue what Stan just said. I read a book in which one characters speech was translated as “scottish sounding noises” in my head. It was just too much work to translate. If that character ever had something important to the plot to say, it was lost on me. Dialect can be achieved with rhythm and a few subtle shifts in spelling.

So what’s Bob’s problem? First it is the snapping. Most people I read on dialogue suggest that you use ‘said’ unless you use ‘asked’ because the speaker is asking a question. The reason is that said becomes like punctuation. The reader only sees it to attach the speech to the right person. The habit some writers have of trying to come up with ever more clever ways of saying ‘said’ forces the reader to pay attention to the words instead of the dialogue. Always use the ‘he said’ order. “Said he” sounds archaic and forced. Only use this order if you want to sound archaic and forced.

The same holds true for adverbs that intend to describe how the sentence was spoken. Mark Twain is supposed to have advised writers to substitute ‘damn’ for ‘very’ so the editor will remove it at no detriment to their writing. I would expand that to remove just about every adverb that you would care to use. If you want to put emotion into the dialogue, put it into the words that are being spoken. Don’t write boring dialogue and try to spice it up with adverbs.

The last bit about attribution is using non-speech words to attribute speech. People don’t cough up sentences, or laugh them, or weep them. If you are writing about a certain age of boy, they may burp them. Stick with said and use a beat to add the coughing, laughing or weeping. The bit about the three men holding their breath? That’s a beat. A beat is action in the midst of dialogue that helps pace the dialogue. In this case it gives a break between the first part of the sentence and the second.

The punctuating of dialogue seems complicated, but it isn’t that difficult.

“Look,” he said, “only lower case for the attribution unless you’re using a name, or something that would normally be upper case.”

“Hey!” she said, “remember that exclamation points and question marks are treated like commas.”

“I was getting there,” he said. “How about those Yankees? You see how I used upper case since I was starting a new sentence in the second segment of the speech?”

That’s a primer on dialogue. I may put some more advanced suggestions up at a later date.