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Dialogue: The Basics

“There's no absolute rule about when you should use dialogue and when you shouldn't, but here's a good generalization: If a stranger were nearby, would you try to eavesdrop on the conversation? If the answer is no, don't use the dialogue. If the answer is yes, use it.” --Gary Provost

Dialogue is an important device in fiction. Its primary function is to inform while blending with character and action. It is immediate and and often either sets the stage for ensuing action or explains action that has gone on before. It also adds realism and enables the reader to “see” and “hear” what is happening--it is visible sound.

Dialogue spoken by a character is immediate. Dialogue that is narrated by the writer is always an instant behind the action. In real life, much dialogue is idle, cluttered with hems, haws, and repititions. The speech of dialogue must be natural and reveal the character’s personality.

Dialogue has a number of legitimate jobs. It moves the story forward. It characterizes people in the story. It provides information. NEVER use it just to fill up the page, to create scenes that could be replaced with a simple transition, or to cover ground that could be covered more quickly or more effectively with simple narrative. When it doesn't reveal character or move the story forward; and when there is no tension presented in a scene, you have used unnecessary dialogue.

Think of dialogue as a transaction. People meet and clash or bargain or make or break silence. The tension between the characters is reflected in what they have to say to each other. What they say sets the terms for the transaction. Generally dialogue is best used when it 1) informs, 2) reveals attitudes, 3) expresses responses, 4) inquires. 1. INFORMATION: “I'm going to go to the store to buy food.” 2. ATTITUDE: “Was he that stupid? He should have listened to me.” 3. RESPONSE: “Don't you dare say that.” 4. INQUIRY: “Did he really kill his best friend?”

Dialogue must constantly affirm the believability of the character. You must:

1. KNOW THE CHARACTER (their habits, backgrounds, points of view) 2. UNDERSTAND THE CHARACTER'S MOTIVATIONS (why they say what they say) 3. MAKE THE CHARACTERS CONSISTENT (don't have them saying uncharacteristic things) 4. MAKE THE DIALOGUE BELIEVABLE. Characters speak from what they are as people. They must speak in a manner determined by their EDUCATION, ECONOMIC and ETHNIC origins.

The Basic Rules 1. Each speaker gets his/her own paragraph, and the paragraph includes whatever you wish to say about what the character is doing when speaking.

2. “It’s a beautiful day,” she said. “What a shame we have to go to work.” “It damn sure is," he said.

3. If no one else has spoken in the paragraph, it may be better to run the dialogue straight on. He glanced around the room. “It’s not too much to look at, is it” he said.

4. Punctuation at the end of the speech should normally come before the inverted commas are closed.

5. Where someone is addressed directly in dialogue, the name they are addressed by must always be offset by a comma.

“It’s a gorgeous day, David,” she said. “Sweetheart, you’re not wrong,” he said.

6. Where a speech is continued over two or more paragraphs—not a habit to repeat too often—the rule is that you re-open the inverted commas at the start of each new paragraph, but only close them at the end of the speech.

“But my father sent me to Marrakech to see the snake charmers and whirling dervishes in Djernms El Fna. He said that Paris wasn't the place to be, what was Paris compared to Morocco. Besides, he'd been stationed there and gave me the names of people and places to see, none of which I followed through on. “I fell in love anyway. His name was Martin, and he worked for a news service. One day we accompanied some friends to the sea to spread the ashes of a favorite cat over the water. On the beach were hundreds of jellyfish and a couple making love.”

USES Gestures can also replace spoken words and make a scene feel more realistic. In most cases, the word "said" and “asked” work just fine. Using attributes, such as cried, shrieked, snarled, barked, growled, and sniffed detract from the dialogue. The reader focuses on HOW the line was said not on WHO said it.

Always use "said" unless the action must be characterized further by telling HOW something is said. It is best to remember that WHAT is said in any page of dialogue is at least three times as important as HOW it is said.

Here are some examples of dialogue and actions: “No. I won't buy that,” He slammed his fist on the table. (anger) “I love you,” he said, stroking the back of her neck (intimate) “I love you,” he finally confessed (vulnerable) “I love you,” he said in a loud voice (prideful) The difference between dialogue and conversation; (usual speech)

“I want to tell you something that's been on my mind a very long time. Not a short time, for years, maybe. You know the clothes you wear? I mean the clothes you always wear, you know what I mean? Well, I want to tell you something about them, all right? I mean, it’s important, so I want you to hear it, all right.”

(written dialogue)

“For years I've wanted to tell you about your clothes you wear. They're perfectly awful.”

MISUSES Overlong speeches are to be avoided. They diminish the dramatic possibilities. When information is planted in dialogue the dialogue becomes unbelievable. The reader SEES information rather than hears it. Stay away from summary dialogue, it shouldn't be substituted for speech when dialogue better serves purpose.

Too many direct references. For example: lists. DIALECT

Dialect should be used sparingly.

Use words that impart dialect rather than misspellings, i.e. , y'all.

1. Does using dialect have a legitimate purpose in the story? 2. Familiarity with the dialect you are using. 3. Limiting your use of dialect to a few key suggestive phrases only? 4. Don't overdo the use of dialect 5. Don't use dialect you aren't completely familiar with.

The best example of dialect is Thomas Wolfe’s “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn.” The story is written all in the Carnarsie variation of Brooklynese. The story can be found on the internet.


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