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Dialogue: an adaptable writing tool

Updated: Sep 11, 2023

You: What's the best way to use dialogue?

Ed.: Set your objectives for the dialogue first.

You: Such as...?

Ed.: Describing the person who is talking for one.

You: Do you mean tag lines?

Ed.: Yes. 'He said', 'She said', 'Adam said' etc identify the persons talking, but its not always necessary to use these tags all the time. I am talking more about tone of voice, language, even vocabulary.

For instance, imagine how the same sentence (or meaning) might be expressed by a London Cabbie, versus an Oxford University professor (with no disrespect to either).

You: I'll do that. What else should I consider?

Ed.: Use it to help your reader to understand what the character is doing, or how they are doing it, even location and time of day.

You: Do you mean description following the tag line, or after the section of dialogue?

Ed.: Yes, for instance: "Curses!" he cried, tripping over the carpet the dark as he ran into the house, and landing in his mother's lap.

You: I see. "Curses" on it's own merely tells me he/she is annoyed. But what follows tells me the person is in a hurry; they may be clumsy; what time of day it is (dark); and that it is probably his mother's house.

Ed.: That's right. You can also hint at what might be happening next, or suspense or even consequence in the story, by adding another sentence - therefore making one section of dialogue a paragraph.

You: Such as: He hoped he was in time before the police arrived to take him back to jail.

Ed.: Exactly. We now know 'why' he was running, 'from whom', and 'what the outcome might be'.

You: So, dialogue can serve the same purpose as narrative - being descriptive as well as adding pace and moving the story along.

Ed.: Yes. Dialogue can inject action and pace.

You: How else can I use dialogue?

Ed.: Depending on the scene in which the dialogue takes place or the mood of the character, you can apply a different 'tone of voice'.

You: In the tag line?

Ed.: Yes, as well as description that follows. You can also use exclamation marks, italics, or even CAPITAL LETTERS, for dramatic effect.

You: Do you always have to start your dialogue as a new sentence?

Ed.: No. Sometimes it's best to open the paragraph with description - scene setting as it were - which anticipates what the character is about to say, qualifies the dialogue, or explains in advance what the character ends up saying.

You: How do you mean?

Ed.: Try this: By now it was dark. Thankfully the police were nowhere to be seen, so he ran blindly into the house and into the kitchen, tripping over the carpet as he did so. "Curses," he cried, landing straight into the lap of his poor mother.

You: Are there any 'rules'regarding punctuation?

Ed.: I guess if you went on a writing course you would find some 'recommended' styles or grammatical preferences. From experience, I have found several styles favoured by different authors.

You: Such as?

Ed.: The one used here is 'OK', but more common in plays and film scripts.

* Others merely use a dash '-' before each opening sentence of dialogue, as long as it is clear who is speaking. I cannot see that working unless there are only two talking characters in the scene.

* The use of opening and closing quotes can be singular (') or plural ("). Just be consistent throughout.

* Another trick is to use double for dialogue, but apply single for quotes inside the main dialogue, e.g. "I don't know what you mean by 'effective'", she said.

I find the above gives me additional flexibility. * You can always apply italics to suggest thought, or 'off-stage' type of comments, e.g. "I want you to pay me £100 a week expenses," he said. Good luck with that! she muttered to herself, and left.

You: Any other important 'do's and don't's'?

Ed.: Although you will see other tags, the 'he said' and she said' are, and should be, your default position. Beyond that, 'he replied', 'she asked', 'he cried', 'she yelled (or screamed)', and a few others are OK to use, but most experts advise that you don't use overly descriptive tags, such as: 'she challenged', 'he expostulated', 'she enforced', 'he remonstrated', and so on. It's much more 'normal' to say: "I don't believe you!" she said, challenging his position.

You: Thank, Ed. I think that's enough to take in, for now.

Ed': You're right.

The best advice I can give is to read well-known authors (perhaps start with Dickens!) and note their different styles.

You may even want to compare different styles used in different genres, or at least focus on the style adopted by authors in the genre of your own writing.

Above it has to come over as natural - check this by reading your own writing out loud - it has to be easy to read. Smooth. FOOTNOTE: This free short story download Peregrine the Peregrine is based largely on dialogue. Why not test yourself by taking a section of your own writing, and re-writing but using almost entirely dialogue to achieve the same - or better - result!

Discover dialogue - an adaptable writing tool.

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