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“He said,” and then “she said,” and then “they said…” The preceding is a good way to lose our readers. How can we, as writers, make our dialogue exciting, compelling and unique to the characters?

Let’s begin by defining the role of dialogue in fiction. There are two main purposes for dialogue:

— to show character development

— to move the plot forward

Dialogue is not an opportunity for the writer to manipulate characters in order to fill in extraneous information. Example: Sherry stared at Bill and said, “You know, of course, that there used to be a well right where we’re standing.

Do not manipulate dialogue to tell the reader about background information, or to repeat things the reader already knows.

This example does not show anything about the character or the plot, only about the author’s inability to properly incorporate necessary (or not) backstory.

Now to the content of dialogue. What do we include and what do we omit? When people speak, they use a lot of filler words that are almost always unnecessary in writing. Alfred Hitchcock said, “Drama is life with the dull parts left out.” So it is with writing dialogue. We must capture the essence and leave out the dull parts. We must be exact and careful. We must give the reader the benefit of the doubt as far as being able to understand our intent. 

“Writing dialogue isn’t about replicating speech. It’s about giving an impression of it and also of improving upon it.”                                                                                                       http://www.novel-writing-help.com/writing-dialogue.html

Each of our characters needs a unique voice. Not necessarily quirky, although sometimes that works, but distinctive. We need to ask ourselves who the character is. What does he do for a living? How much education does she have? What level of society did he grow up in? Does she use certain unique speech patterns?

If the characters are from different language backgrounds, research the juxtaposition of their words. For example, in English we would say, “I can’t speak German very well,” while in German, the order of the words in direct translation would be, “I can’t very well German speak.” We may have to play with the order a bit to make it readable, and not overdo dialect and accent, but if we take all these character details into consideration, each one will speak differently.

Here are a couple of tips: 1. Find a picture of your characters from a magazine or online from a stock photo site and let the person in the photo speak to you. Sounds weird but it works. 2. Read your dialogue aloud to make sure it reads smoothly and easily. 

 Next, let’s look at the technique of writing dialogue.

Just as every scene in a story needs conflict, so every section of dialogue requires conflict to keep the reader’s attention. If it doesn’t have conflict, it should be cut.

It’s important to vary speech patterns in dialogue, but the speeches should always be as brief as possible. If there’s more to say, the character can tell it in bytes, not all at once. Connected to this, there’s the issue of white space. The way the speech is set out on the page will determine how easy it is to read and how appealing it is to the reader. If a speech goes for pages unbroken by paragraphs, many readers won’t bother to read it.

“And then,” she said, “there are speech tags.” We only need enough of them to maintain clarity, and it’s best to stick with said, even though our grade six teachers may have taught us otherwise. The word said becomes invisible and thus easy to read. It doesn’t take us out of the action as would retorted or maligned.

On that same topic, avoid the adverbs. Instead of writing, “…she said sweetly,” let the character show the emotion behind her words: “she said, and winked at him.”

We can often use beats of action to maintain clarity in speech. “Don’t touch that!” Ruby grabbed the doll and held it to her chest.

If we study good dialogue, we can imitate it and will soon be able to write it well ourselves.

Finally, we must learn how to properly use punctuation in dialogue. It’s not difficult, although it feels cumbersome at first. With practice it can become second nature. There are online sites if we’re unsure, as well as lots of good resource books. I’ve recently read a couple e-books that were poorly punctuated, and it’s distracting and frustrating. We want our work to be as polished as possible.

Online dialogue punctuation sites:                           http://theeditorsblog.net/2010/12/08/punctuation-in-dialogue
http://litreactor.com/columns/talk-it-out-how-to-punctuate-dialogue-in-your-prose
http://www.be-a-better-writer.com/punctuate-dialogue.html
Handy resources:
Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss (includes differences between Canadian, British and American usage)
Woe is I by Patricia T. O’Connor (a wonderfully light-hearted grammar book)
The Elements of Style by Strunk and White (the famous old standby)

All the best as you practice and perfect your dialogue. See you next time to talk about Setting.

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When I present a talk on novel writing, I often ask the audience for their input on the basic elements of fiction, and they come up with several immediately: plot, setting and character.

Plot, according to James Scott Bell in his excellent how-to book Plot & Structure, is:

“1. A small piece of ground, generally used for burying dead people, including writers. 2. A plan, as for designing a building or novel.”

Plot is what happens in our stories:  the beginning, the middle and the end; with a story arc that takes the reader from one part to the next with compelling situations.

Of course, every story happens somewhere, so setting is essential to story. Characters should not interact in empty space without background or props…or reality. Setting takes us from the details of a room to the description of a village, city or fantastic new universe. It’s up to us to choose the setting, as long as we make it believable and stick to the rules we set up.

When something happens (plot) somewhere (setting), there are characters who experience it or tell about it. Perhaps we choose our characters to show various levels of society or to parallel a person we know or have heard about. There are countless reasons for character choice, but a writer must know the characters intimately in order for them to appear realistic and three-dimensional.

These are the three elements most often suggested by readers. Before reading further, see if you can list a few more…

Dialogue goes hand in hand with character. A novel needs dialogue to bring it to life, and a character needs distinctive dialogue in order to be memorable and unique. In brief, dialogue has two main functions: to move the plot forward and to reveal character.

Another element is point of view. Through whose eyes will we be telling the story? Will there be more than one viewpoint? Will it be first person (“I have always loved the colour red”) or third person (“She had always loved the colour red”)? The choice is up to us, but consistency is essential.

Another facet of novel building is voice. What’s the difference between voice and style? Check out the explanation on my blog: https://janicedick.wordpress.com/2012/03/01/its-who-you-are/.

It’s also important to include literary features in our writing. Similes, metaphors, personification, onomatopoeia and other such features give visual quality and richness to our work. We need to delve into the beauty of crafting words into phrases, sentences, paragraphs and scenes that will impact our readers.

Another aspect of crafting a novel is what I call PUG: punctuation, usage and grammar.  Check out English Grammar on Facebook at http://www.englishgrammar.org/or on Twitter: https://twitter.com/GrammarUpdates. If we want our manuscripts to make it to an editor’s desk, we must make sure we’ve done all the necessary work. If you aren’t a grammar guru, find someone who is.

I write historical novels, so research is the foundation to a credible story, but research is important in any and every story. If our details are accurate, then the reader can trust our content as well.

And don’t forget the polish. Every manuscript must be carefully and conscientiously checked for everything from the flow of the writing to PUG to the correct meaning of words (or their connotations) to the amount of white space on the page.

This is a summary of the various aspects of crafting a novel. In subsequent blogs I will expand on these features. Until then, happy writing.

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Dialogue can be difficult to write, specifically the aspect of punctuation, when you first begin. It is also something that becomes second nature with time and practice.

Tip #1

The basic challenge lies with proper use of quotation marks. Each new speaker in a written conversation requires his or her own indented paragraph, and the quotation—the speaker’s words—is opened with double quotation marks.

Example:

“Adina is always welcome…

The quotation is then closed with either a comma or a period (or other appropriate punctuation), and then closing quotation marks.

Example:

“Adina is always welcome here,” said Bella.

or

“Adina is always welcome here.” Bella smiled at her new friend.

Notice that if a speech tag is used (said Bella), then a comma is needed just before the closing quotation marks. If what comes after the quotation is not a speech tag, but an independent sentence, then a period is used at the end of the quotation.

The general rule, at least in North America, is that the comma, period, question mark or exclamation point is included inside the closing quotation marks.

Tip #2

The quiet, almost invisible word “said” is a writer’s best friend. Readers skim over it as if it doesn’t exist. It serves its purpose without distracting from the actual conversation taking place. In most cases, it is best to avoid the use of loud, distracting words like the following: retorted, maligned, cajoled, howled, lilted, transmitted, whimpered, etcetera. I just found a list of five hundred of these words on an internet site, yet we rarely need anything besides “said.” The strength of the conversation, the word choices and the characters themselves should fill in the desired emotion.

Tip #3

Try writing your story without using speech tags. Independent sentences, or beats, describing what the characters are doing while they are speaking, can make speech tags almost unnecessary.

Example:

“Adina, you are not welcome here.” Stephanie stamped her foot.

Bella stepped up and put her arm around Adina’s shoulders. “Since this is my house, I say who is welcome in it.”

With practice and conscientious use, these tips will help you to become more proficient at writing dialogue. For practice, pick one of your favourite nursery rhymes (Little Boy Blue; Mistress Mary, Quite Contrary; Mary had a Little Lamb; etc.) and write the story completely in dialogue. Then try it using beats (Stephanie stamped her foot) to avoid speech tags.

Happy writing

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